Saturday, February 8, 2014

Power Gardener: Sarah Fairchild's Lush Plot

"Just close your eyes," I'd like to say, "and imagine the paintings I will describe to you." 

"They are very large, with backgrounds of metallic paints that shimmer and change colors as you approach from different directions. Gigantic floral forms are painted in hot magenta on top of the iridescent backgrounds. These huge pink plants are meticulously detailed, rendered with every vein and shadow. Their stems, stalks, and leaves, though, are made of fuzzy blue flocking." 

Where would you expect to find art fitting that description? In
 a head shop? In a bordello? In a bridal supply warehouse? 

Or at the Farmer's Exchange? For all of those meticulously executed, exotic and erotic forms are representations of truck farm produce. Corn stalks and brussels sprouts are the points of departure into Fairchild's splendid phantasmagoria. 
Sarah Fairchild, Zucchini and Nut Grass. Acrylic and nylon flocking on paper. 51 x 67 inches. Courtesy, 
Hammond Harkins Galleries.
Fairchild's solo show, Lush, is currently at Hammond Harkins Galleries in Bexley, Ohio. I have every hope that pieces from this show will be on display long after the gallery closing, ending up in one of our regions' excellent art museums. It would be very strange were their contemporary curators not looking seriously at this work and arranging their budgets for purchase.

This is the most gutsy and accomplished show of painting I've ever seen in Columbus. It is an uncanny balance of beauty, ferocity, and restraint. To see this work is to be mesmerized; to fall under the influence of an irresistible presence.
Flocking on top of iridescent paint.

Zucchini and Nut Grass, above, like all this work, is hard to photograph, for the colors and the holographic shine of the metallic background cannot be truly captured. Unique to Fairchild's painting is the creation of three layers with distinct surface properties. Yet she's able to integrate iridescent shine with completely light-absorbent flocking laid atop matte acrylic paint. How she came to conceive of this combination is the sort of genius that is either deeply intuitive or outrageously daring. In either event, it reveals that bravura confidence of an artist absorbed in her vision to the exclusion of everything else.

Fairchild acknowledges her love of Charles Burchfield's wallpapers and it's easy to see why she relates to them: the large-scale natural forms in asymmetrical repetition, plus the highly decorative elements of her paintings certainly tip their hat in that direction. Fairchild's paintings assert themselves far beyond design alone, however. The size of most of these is wall-consuming. The thought of repetition at such grand size only underscores how singularly her images are poised on the edge of science fiction or fantasy without stretching our sensibilities to the breaking point.
Detail of acrylic painting

Either close up or from across the room, the viewer has to be mesmerized by the intricacy of Fairchild's paintings. The meticulous workmanship is not a token of fastidiousness, but it's the history of the painter's absorption. The commitment to such a high level of realism in the context of a surreal forcefield of color and texture is an index of Fairchild's comfort with her extraordinary vision.

Zucchini blossoms
Those shiny, decorative backgrounds revealed between the foliage add psychological edge, emotional depth, and spatial ambiguity to the paintings. In Zucchini and Nut Grass, the title tames the sprawling pink form that might otherwise be read as a menacing, invasive super species—the stuff of science fiction. Once we've reassured ourselves however, that, "it's only zucchini," we are still left with the repeated shining concentric circles, blinkless, in the background. Are they eyes looking through the organism? Are they lights that throw the forms into this simplified relief? Or, are they merely visual echoes of the interiors of squash blossoms, there to reinforce the reality of the subject? This is Fairchild's special zone, between literality and the far shores of suggestion.

It's not only in Zucchini and Nut Grass, but in other paintings too that I find Fairchild's vision of Nature less related to Charles Burchfield's (see Starr Review, March 23, 2013) than to Henri Rousseau's. In design, she shares much with Burchfield; in feeling and power, she communicates the managed potential for ferocity found in Rousseau's mysterious, alluring jungles. 
Sarah Fairchild, Brussels Sprouts and Sweetcorn. Acrylic and nylon flocking on paper, 51 x 80 inches.
Courtesy, Hammond Harkins Galleries.
Brussels Sprouts and Sweetcorn lies, like most of Fairchild's work, somewhere between a landscape and a still life. Scrutiny of the left side reveals a tall stalk of brussels sprouts ready for harvest growing among the corn. On the right side, overblown sprouts fall forward toward us, like roses past their prime in an elegiac interior. The cornstalks form a row of consistent measure across the painting, while the sprouts change scale dramatically, moving from distant ("outdoors") to present (close enough to touch).     
Henri Rousseau, Tiger in a Tropical Storm, 1891.

Among this painting's details and transformations of scale are many secret hiding places—where Rousseau's big cats would lurk. On Fairchild's surface, we find ourselves investigating not the variegations of the color palette, though, but the holes that the bright, "negative" background space punch out among the pink and blue foliage. The silver under-layer almost literally tears its way toward the surface. Both the contrast of high and low values and the intricacy of the spaces carved out by those contrasts gives visual hints of some elusive, dynamic form among the layers. We may not be able to pin down a hiding tiger, but there's definitely a sense that we could be taken unawares by a sudden, unanticipated emergence from the complex scene.

Sarah Fairchild, Chinese Cabbage. Acrylic, silkscreen and
nylon flocking on paper, 
52 x 36 inches.
Courtesy, Hammond Harkins Galleries.

When we catch our breath in awe, seeing a queen in her gown, robes and jewels, the reaction can be attributed to the beauty and carriage of the person herself, or to the awe imparted by the fineness of the regalia. The combination, though, leaves no room for doubt that we are in the presence of the most magnificent and admirable of women. 

Chinese Cabbage must be the name of royalty, for this painting elicits that kind of response. Is the cabbage so beautiful, or is it her raiment that induces so worshipful a response? Fairchild has made a portrait so close-up that the edges are cropped and even the "age spots"—the holes bitten through by insects—are meticulously detailed along with every fold and flourish. Weeds are the lace around this face, and they are set off against the opalescent, blue to violet background. 

Georgia O'Keeffe, Pink Sweet Peas,1927.
Pastel on paper, 28 x 21."
It's hard not to connect the image with Georgia
O'Keeffe's close-ups of irises, sweet-peas, and other flowers with vaginal and vulvar forms. The most robust of O'Keeffe's, though, are feminine in a way that is softer and more sensual than Fairchild's. They are indeed lush, but in a way that is smooth, fresh, with every implication of youthful virginity. The flower is not separated from a background by any weedy, stubbly imperfections, as Fairchild's chinese cabbage is. But then, a vegetable is in a post-floral stage of life. A vegetable is about seeds, not seduction. 

Fairchild's painting is indeed deeply sensual, and some would say that all of her work is very sexy. To call it "sexy" is, I think, too reductive and simplistic. 

Sarah Fairchild, Red Cabbage. Acrylic and nylon
 flocking on paper. 
72 x 54 inches. Courtesy,
Harkins Gallery.
The difference does indeed seem to lie between the flower and the fruit. Fairchild never particularly valorizes blossoms over other parts of a plant. Cornstalks; corn silk; brussels sprouts on the stem; worm-eaten leaves; nosegays of field weeds: She does not fetishize the obvious botanical symbols of feminine beauty or ripeness. While she emphasizes the lush, the attention-getting, and the artful, the feminine element of her work lies in its ageless confidence and comfort, its "warts-and-all" self-display on its own terms. 

The unlikely mixture of elements from which Fairchild creates her paintings tells us from the beginning that she is not invested in a unitary aesthetic or theory about beauty or power. If anything is genuinely feminine about her work in a sexy way, it is her womanly confidence in her choices of matter, materials, and methods. Fairchild turns her tenacious, time-consuming process into a luxury: She knows what she wants to do; she doesn't ask permission; her love and her will show in the power of the work. 

Fairchild's sensual work is clearly the product of a woman with no use for rules that she hasn't made herself, and with a conception of femininity untrammeled by the ideas that maturity must be touched up, or that ripeness, intuition, and definition are beyond desire.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Wood Sculptures at a Senegalese Market: Art, Value, and the Tourist's Eye

On a recent trip to Dakar, Senegal, I visited the artisanal market at Pointe des Almadies, where authentic regional art and crafts are to be had. 

Not that these cannot be found in shops (i.e., the kind with lighting, doors that lock at night, and discreet sales ladies). But in shops, arts and crafts items are carefully vetted, and they are marked up to high, commercial prices. Foreigners with experience or coaching know that similar or identical items can be found in local markets. 

But to visit the marketplace (open stalls, no amenities, proprietors who are hell-bent on sales) if you are to enjoy the advantage of better prices. You must be prepared to stand up against those badgering, aggressive vendors. You have to be willing to bargain staunchly for that better price. You should assume automatically that any item is worth half or less than  the stall-keeper's asking price. Even the price asked, however, is probably a quarter of what would be asked in the swell boutique with doors. 

In the stalls at the artisanal market, one can find many beautiful and fascinating things: djembes and talking drums; jewelry made of seeds, shells, beach glass, ceramic beads, wax cloth; paintings of village scenes; leather sandals and bags; and, above all, carved wooden items from tiny trinkets to large, free-standing sculpture.

Most of the stalls offered small carved wood objects, whatever the real focus of its inventory was. Everyone had small, rough-hewn wooden turtles: Even at "full price" they'd cost very little. Their ubiquitousness suggested that they, like a few other items, may have been made entirely as tourist trinkets. 

I discovered once I got home that several rare kinds of turtles (marine and desert) live in Senegal, and that there are companies that even take tourists out to watch loggerhead turtles lay eggs in the sand. Turtles are likely to mean more even than tourist dollars to the Senegalese. Where was the line between made-for-tourists, and shared culture?

In the shop that carried wooden sculpture exclusively, the proprietor spoke pretty good English and was willing to spend some time actually discussing his merchandise with me. He did in fact have some stunning sculptures, like a sinuous, gleaming alligator carved of ebony that hung on the wall, five feet long in its curled state. No one would consider it other than a work of art, so well made, so well designed, so spirited a piece it was. Clearly it was made by an artist—whoever that person is, living under whatever circumstances, with who knows what expectations for the sale of his/her work. The alligator was what a small museum would be happy to collect for its African Art wing. It was a carving that was wonderful on aesthetic grounds alone. Its local significance could be made as relevant or irrelevant as curators and viewers wished.

Alike but different; faces or masks?
On the other hand, there were a great many modest objects that fell into a zone between the crude turtles and the magnificent alligator—for example, carved faces that were, as far as I could tell, masks of some sort. That they were incomprehensible to me was a block to my appreciation on even a basic aesthetic level. Were they the result of any particular local need or impulse? Or were these tourist bait, designed to look like Western ideas of African carvings? 

Here I was in an artisanal market, but I was confused by a blurring of several values. What was I looking for? Authenticity in terms of tradition, culture, or use: Yes. Aesthetic appeal and craftsmanship: Of course. Yet wasn't I quick to judge anything for appearing in a stall that I thought "too touristy? Wasn't I hasty to dismiss items I considered (for arbitrary reasons) kitsch, despite their being local and hand-made? How could I know the intrinsic value of anything there, knowing nothing of its significance?

Friday, Saturday, Sunday
If it hadn't been for the obliging shopkeeper whose English was a little better than my French, I think I'd have made no purchase. I think that these seven little teak carvings opposite would have remained impenetrable to me. I'd probably have examined them one by one, tried to decide which I liked best, and decided that none was all that compelling.

The shopkeeper brought all of them down at once, then he laid them out side by side, arranging and rearranging them carefully as if he were beginning a game of solitaire. They were not individuals, but a set of seven carvings.

They are, he explained, a calendar for the illiterate of their Muslim country, each indicating one of the seven days of the week. Each day, the appropriate carving is placed vertically to insure that the household proceeds in orderly step within the community.

In the photograph above, the carvings are laid out in order, beginning with Monday. Monday has one point at the top of the head. Tuesday has two. Wednesday's more elaborate, dual pairing (two straight up, the middle two coming together) indicates the day of the week traditional for marrying. 

Thursday has four points and a clipped beard as well. The four points are not only for the fourth day, but together with the trimmed beard indicate the day for the barber, where one is neatened up for Friday—the day a man wears a hat and combs his beard to go to the mosque.

Saturday and Sunday are days to be lazy about personal appearance. The points on top are "disheveled" and by Sunday the man is wearing leisure clothes and ornaments that are represented by the folds and forms surrounding the face.

I am very happy that I bought the calendar (in teak; a similar calendar in ebony was more than I wanted to pay). I am fascinated that it is so full of ideas and that looking at it takes me to a world I wouldn't have imagined without it. It's already served what I consider one of the functions of art just by opening a door that takes me past the thing itself.

Now that I know its significance, it is more appealing to my eye than it was before. The fact that it is not finely wrought makes sense and completes its story in a satisfying way. Was it made to be used? Or was it made to sell to tourists? Should I know? Should I care? Would knowing increase or decrease its authenticity and appeal for me?

I had been given the figure on the right as a gift in
the past. Now I know it to be a Sunday
figure from an ebony calendar set.
When I visit collections of African art, I'm always amazed by the forms, colors, and ideas of representation or symbol so different from those I'm familiar with. In museums, African art is often staged in a position closely bordering on anthropology, and the work of a vast continent with myriad cultures is of necessity, though unhappily, all clumped together. 

At the artisanal market, though, I felt that I gained some minor insight into the process of collecting artifacts from a far-away culture. What is art, what is tool, and are such distinctions useful? If it's made for trade, is it less valuable? If it's common, is it less valuable, or if it's rough rather than perfected? None of the distinctions I'm used to working with—even if only to challenge—made any sense in that Senegalese market. It's a place that either requires a set of questions I haven't discovered yet, or one that I haven't learned to put away.