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.

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