Critics’ Picks

Courage, 2006.

Washington, DC

Erik Sandberg

CONNERSMITH.
1013 O St, NW (Spring 2016)
September 15 - October 28

“Contrary,” Erik Sandberg’s exhibition of three provocative new double-sided, freestanding paintings on the theme of virtue and vice, are tremendous achievements in figuration—masterfully painted and richly sculptural, they establish the artist as a worthy heir to John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage. Sandberg harbors a dark wit and a tremendous knowledge of art, revealed over the years in disquieting narrative paintings crawling with small figures that call to mind Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Netherlandish proverbs and Hieronymous Bosch’s rancid characters. (The artist prefers reference to the former.) In these compositionally complex, skillfully painted, and morally blunt works, his people do awful things to one another.

Here, Sandberg ups the ante: The diminutive figures are now gloriously modeled life-size images, the line between visual attraction and repulsion is less distinct, and the freestanding works’ participation in the debate about the border between sculpture and painting is devilishly sly. More important, the moral certainty of his characters seems greatly dissipated. It’s not clear whether there’s a virtue to being a Virtue, and whether Sandberg’s Virtues are particularly virtuous. Charity (all works 2006), for example, dolled up in black hot pants, opera-length gloves, and a fur stole, proffers some food on her outstretched tongue to a bird on her shoulder, but the way she clutches a gallon of milk to her chest says, “This is Mine. None for You!” Sandberg has fun, even at his own expense. Cowardice is a bloated self-portrait in which the artist, clad only in white briefs and a rabbit mask, has withered arms and a plucked chicken at his feet. He wields a machete in his stub of a right hand, but, as the artist recently said, despite his figure’s menacing glare, “how much damage could he possibly do?”