Perambulating the Bounds

Monday, July 02, 2007

Sara La's show at Zeitgeist

Sara La is one of the painters in town whose work I try to follow closely. She brings to bear a rich set of personal and cultural references, a willingness to play either a surrealist or realist card, and the ability to establish a dignified, pensive tone. One thing through it all, even when I’m not crazy about a particular painting, is that she seems like a artist in motion, working through things. I would say working towards something, but that implies her paintings are not fully formed. It’s not that at all. It’s just there’s a sense of direction to the movement between pieces and bodies of work.

Sara’s got new paintings up at Zeitgeist now through Saturday. Get down there and take a look. Let’s say there’s 3 threads in these paintings: a series of domestic studies, a linked set of surrealist pieces, and a couple of allegorical paintings. And the threads go together pretty neatly.

The domestic studies are a cycle of 4 season paintings: a self-portrait (I think) with just her face visible from underneath burnt orange covers (Fall), a painting of Sara’s torso in which she lifts up her shirt to show her belly and breasts (Winter), and a picture of her dog for Summer. The Spring painting is a closeup of skin with drops of water on it. A small seedling sprouts from one of the water drops. OK, this is more in keeping with the surrealist tendency, so let me turn to that.

These paintings involve images of her husband, the artist Chris Scarborough. The key painting is called “Manageable” and it shows Chris lying on a couch, but his body has been cut into clean slices (no blood or innards), like he has gone through a bread slicer. His arms are neatly stowed beneath the couch. The painting puns the idea of Manageableness from several angles. For one, a time when complicated creatures (babies, dogs, husbands) are manageable is when they’re sleeping; other times, all bets are off. Also, it’s a play on “slicing something into manageable pieces.” Which she does to her husband.

Lest anyone think there is anger latent in her treatment of Chris’ image, it’s worth keeping in mind that Chris has done his share of manipulating and playing tricks with Sara’s image in his work. This playing with each other’s image, it’s just something they do.

One individual slice of Chris’ head recurs in a couple of other paintings. In one, “Ward,” a slice around Chris’ eyes and nose sits in an abstract space, with 8 fingers sticking out of it and a few bird eggs lying around. Two crows loiter in the dark background of the image. Then in “Weather,” a crow carries that slice of Chris’ face in its beak. Water beads up on the crow, and storm clouds crowd the background. In a wonderful detail, some of the paint beads up in the upper part of the canvas and catches light, looking like drops of water flying off Chris’ face.

“Weather” reminded me of Rembrandt’s painting of Ganymede, where the eagle carries the boy off into a stormy sky. Sara’s painting captures the drama of Baroque painting, and does so without being didactically allusive—it’s not a take-off on another painting (contrasted say with Alexis Rockman’s update of the Ecstasy of S. Teresa that I posted on a while back). What’s more, the image takes the surrealist image play and gives it mythological dimensions. Even if you don’t connect it to Ganymede, it looks like a scene out of myth you haven’t heard yet. “The man fell into slices and then a crow came along and carried away his eyes, and nose, and ears. And that’s why to this day…” By the way, it’s worth something that Sara chose a slice of the face that includes the major organs of perception.

By this point, the domestic paintings and the surrealist ones are pretty mixed up together. The family’s there in all of them, common elements like the water drops recur. At times the paintings seem to be making jokes, at other times making myths, and certainly establishing an environment where there’s no reason to separate those activities.

The quasi-myth of these crows and manageable slices leads to the final two paintings with directly symbolic content. One is a diptych of a man and a woman, naked, each carrying a dead dog’s carcass over their shoulders. You know they are Adam and Eve without even seeing the title card. Again, it doesn’t take much art history to associate side-by-side paintings of a nude man and woman with this theme. But Sara’s Adam and Eve are hunters. (And they don’t seem to be portraits of her and Chris.)

The next part requires some help. Lain York explains that the canines are some sort of Australian dog that was hunted to extinction. But there’s nothing about the painting that tells you that, and the dogs could be something more common like a hyena. This is probably the least successful painting in the show. In addition to needing an explanation, the figures are stiff and don’t quite make sense in relation to the other figures in the show. But this painting is important to overall impact of the show. While the figures are not portraits of Sara and Chris, you think of the two couples standing in for each other. The modern couple, and the primordial couple. It gives their domestic life mythological dimensions, living out a life outside the garden, East of Eden—or maybe in the Garden.

The other allegorical painting is more successful. It shows a dolphin, laid out with roses stuck into slices in its skins. It curls around a collection of items: brass oil candles, gloves and wallets. The title is “Goddess of the Yangtze,” and it refers to the Chinese fresh water dolphin that scientists have recently declared extinct, victim to industrialization and hunting. It was hunted for its oil and leather. You would think that people could at least save an animal important enough to earn the nickname Goddess of the Yangtze, although that just glosses over all the biological richness that we are wiping away through our disability as a species to develop reasonable ways of living with each other and with ecosystems.

The references of this painting strike me as less obscure than the Adam and Eve work. It’s pretty obvious that the focus is here on this animal as a victim; also, NPR did a pretty long story on the Yangtze dolphin recently, so plenty of people will catch the precise reference. In this painting the world of mythology and symbol collides with modern reality, with mournful, disastrous consequences.

The paintings here work as a linked suite: the couple and their domestic life taken pretty straight but also as a location for the eternal cycle of seasons and an echo of mythological couples. Their images subjected to surrealist play which blends into art history and myth, and which comes back again to contemporary life. The paintings are alternately melancholy and playful. Sara has packed a lot into these pretty simple paintings, and the ability to do that is something we have seen from her before.


  • Regarding the Adam and Eve figures, You might find this link very interesting:

    Also, the title is derived from this fable:

    This is a cool review and much more than I was expecting. Thank you for taking the time to do it.

    By Blogger Sara, at 8:16 AM  

  • Yes, I should have included the title: The Frog and the Scorpion 1 and 2. I remember that story from the Crying Game.

    By Blogger David Maddox, at 8:36 AM  

  • Sara sold me an artist's print of Weather, and it remains one of my favorite things.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:51 AM  

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