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Upon entering, a visitor feels that Fellini perhaps dreamt of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland... and that the director of Roma was vaguely touched by some unnamed History of Art. There are the luscious fruits so often linked with luxury and lust; the forms of flowers and sly innocence; and in some canvases, allusions lie beyond to suggest that 'clothes do indeed make'... the mannequin, albeit one of empty air. "Tricks and Gifts," paintings by Stephanie Serpick, will be on exhibition at the Art Lounge of the Chicago Illini Union, 828 South Wolcott Avenue, University of Illinois at Chicago, until October 28, 2000. It gives the ordered mind a visual blend of vertigo.
Just why the spirit of Fellini's Roma should come to mind is not certain: but there is that sense of past elegance thwarted in Modernity -- both an homage to tradition, and a questioning of its significance; a wry, at times melancholic eye cast to human vanities bound together with symbols of the sensuous; and a deep, dramatic depth of color. Stephanie Serpick's "Tricks and Gifts" offers four small format acrylics (approximately 8 1/2" x 10"); four large oils on canvas (about 52"x44"); and two mid-sized oils (28"x26"). It also offers innuendos, metaphors and question marks. It is worth an afternoon to take it all in.
Serpick's paintings here suggest allusions to earlier images of women from what is now familiar and canonical art -- Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Gianlorenzo Bernini, perhaps van Dyck; images which imply, but conceal an undertone of allurement, of sensuality suppressed or suffused into social ritual or religious sensibility. Through a mode of Magic Realism, the artist materializes the fruits of vine and branch -- grape clusters, pomegranates, or, as in The Night Blessing, an onion bulb -- and she places them at a painting's visual focus much like a rebus or punctuation of symbols. In two works of this exhibition, Hollow (a small acrylic on paper) and To Give and to Receive (Oil on canvas: 45 1/5"x70"), a bare silver platter echoes in shape the fluted -- and hollow -- Elizabethan collar which poses as subject form.
Serpick unites an unreality all the more plausible -- and provocative -- because of her own skill at realistic illusion. In this, her work is akin to the Magic Realists and the more 'painterly' of the later Surrealist fellow-travelers such as Dali; the Czech artist, Toyen [Maria Cernisova]; and, in a lesser degree, to Yves Tanguy.
Serpick's flora in these paintings are rich in associations so old in Western typology as to seem subliminal and universal, and her visual use of them builds enigmatic but highly suggestive metaphors. Since ancient Greece, and Rome, sweet and juicy fruit, and especially grapes, were props and symbols to satyrs, nymphs, bacchanals and Dionysius -- sensuous and sensual; and substitute and suggestion in the more circumspect Christian centuries to come. (Although one thinks that if any fruit were to be branded as forbidden, it would have been the grape.) An artist like Carravagio, in his Bacchus of 1590, handled the association overtly, and well. Six years later, when Carravagio painted an excellent still-life of grape leaves in a basket, Bacchus was no longer necessary. Serpick's Underbrush, with its preternatural play of light, seems an insistent evocation of that floral reference.
In her first and untitled small acrylic, Serpick presents an enrobed female torso, deployed in a pose which evokes an onset of religious ecstasy, much like Bernini's Ecstasy of Saint Theresa (1645-52). The form is headless; in its companion acrylic, That Which I Do Not Want, one views at upper image, the hems of that figure's robes, and below, a trail of small, falling lemons; an image of what appears to be a precipitous ascension toward heaven. In Portrait of a Woman, the third small acrylic, grapes cluster above the female neckline, while fruit and floral motifs in linework fleck the painting overall; and in the fourth small acrylic of this opening series, Hollow, a presumably male form with hollow, ruffled Elizabethan collar is ensconced at image bottom and central to a half orb. The effect recalls a devotional statue within its niche.
Serpick's smaller series of acrylics sets a visual vocabulary for the oil paintings in "Tricks and Gifts." Throughout, human forms, dressed in finery which in its period was regarded as luxurious and alluring, are replaced by empty space. Fruit and even flourished linework attend the overtly female images, though some do border on androgynous, or perhaps merely indeterminate. Face and countenance, personality, even individuality, are ever absent in the paintings.
The Condition of Being Blue (1996) is a citation from Ingres's Portrait of the Princesse De Broglie (1853), and reveals all the virtuosity of the French master. Bright foreground illumination highlights the high rendering of texture and sheen in the satin dress, the play of shadow and reflection in the elaborate ribboning of the dress sleeves, and furthers the contrast between the blue garment and the golden couch, which is draped by a white cloth. Serpick plays upon and exaggerates Ingres's light and hues. The warm hues of the couch harmonize more intensely, almost as a unity with the feminine arms that rest upon it. Those arms are the only overtly human element in the painting. And at upper canvas, above the hollow dress, two pomegranates float. Again, sweet and juicy fruit: in Greek myth, the undoing of Persephone while in Hades.
In a work such as The Seduction Principle (1995), a citation of Ingres's Betty de Rothschild, Baronne Rothschild, the Neo-classic handling of the opulent formal dress, luxuriant in folds, reflected light and subtle shadows, as well as the calculated pose, all seem to discipline and deny the agitated crimson of the background and the garment. The Seduction Principle acts as a dispassionate meditation on an implied sensuality which screams and insists in aggressive color on its presence and power. The clustered grapes condense as a warning and a lure. Each viewer will differ in particular response, but the work exhibits a visual tension, and visitors to the gallery all lingered at this canvas. The Seduction Principle is one of several works in "Tricks and Gifts" which sparked discussion and debate.
Underbrush (1996) is a work which clearly demonstrates Serpick's approach in utilizing strong directional lighting to place chosen areas of her images in monochrome, while emphasizing and enlivening select focal elements with full palette. It is particularly of note that the bouquet of living grape leaves are given in natural color, only shifting to a blue cast in shadowed proximity to the bare silver platter; the same platter to appear as companion to the ornate but empty costume in To Give and to Receive. The inert and empty lies in shadow and subordinate to the captured vine. It is consistent and representative of Serpick's imagery throughout these paintings.
In at least two paintings in "Tricks and Gifts," the artist plays with additional subtleties and innuendo. In To Give and to Receive (1995), a viewer discerns a silhouetted form which flanks the hollow, central subject, as if an alter ego concealed in darkness. In The Night Blessing (28"x26"), below and seemingly to the fore, a viewer is presented with a dark presence: the form is all but ambiguous against an equally dark visual ground; only the slightest sliver of faint outline at left aids in reading the image. At lower left, a onion bulb, or what might even be a garlic clove, is placed much as a token or charm. Whether it is a gift, or a trick, it is part of the openness of content, and engaging execution of image which makes "Tricks and Gifts" an exhibition well worth one's time and effort.
In the course of Fellini's Roma, the filmmaker presents a Vatican fashion show. Beginning with an array of conventional church vestments, the run continues to the surreal, replete with wearable Baroque altars adorned with memento morii skeletons, emblems reminding of human mortality. In many of Serpick's paintings, one senses a vision akin to Fellini's: an homage and matching of skill against a legacy in art; a wry critique of significance and vanities; an Imp-of-the-Perverse toying with self-conscious Modernity. A Cheshire Cat grin, without a face.
The Night Blessing by Stephanie Serpick was included in a general preview of the "30th Pilsen East Artists' Open House" published earlier this month in www.artscope.net. In her most recent work, which the artist had on display during that Pilsen East artist's walk, identifiable motifs emerge and recede back into the surrounding image ground, recalling the virtual, almost fantasy conceptualization of quantum particles or the fleeting instants of recognition which characterize moving objects briefly lit in dim light: a flickering of actuality. Stephanie Serpick is an artist whose future work will be well worth following.
Serpick received her BFA from Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh in 1993, and an MFA from the University of Chicago in 1996. "Tricks and Gifts", paintings by Stephanie Serpick, will continue at the Art Lounge of the Chicago Illini Union, 828 South Wolcott Avenue, University of Illinois at Chicago, until October 28, 2000.
--G. Jurek Polanski
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