Critics’ Picks

Honoré Sharrer, Reception, 1958, oil on canvas, 22 1/2 × 30''.


Honoré Sharrer

Columbus Museum of Art
480 East Broad Street
February 10–May 21

This survey of Honoré Sharrer’s work recovers an artist long eclipsed by Cold War cultural politics, bringing her lapidary naturalism out from the overlapping shadows of Joseph McCarthy and Clement Greenberg. Workers and Paintings, 1942, places a group of men, women, and children against a low-slung townscape, its horizontal orientation and muddy monochromy reminiscent of Courbet’s Burial at Ornans. In the frieze, unidealized, hard-faced figures carry framed pictures by Bruegel, Daumier, Rivera, and Picasso (Sharrer delighted in burlesquing other artworks inside her own). But the relation between the titular workers and the paintings is shot through with antinomy. On one hand, it would seem to prefigure a classless society where cultural treasures, along with the means of production, belong to workers. But the figures’ indifference hurls this utopianism back to reality and its class-bound hierarchies of culture and taste.

In Reception, 1958, anticommunist cold warriors such as Francis Cardinal Spellman, McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover, and Clare Boothe Luce hold court in an ornament-encrusted pink ballroom, presided over by pair of frothy nudes by Fragonard and Boucher. The little birds landing on the heads and shoulders of these influence-peddlers add a fey surrealist touch, which in Sharrer’s later works would explode into mythic psychosexual tableaux. Often slapped with Alfred Barr’s somewhat baggy term “magic realism,” they make the familiar strange and vice versa, without the theoretical fussiness of much Bretonian Surrealism.

In Waitress’s Day Off, 1984, a naked woman lies on the floor, with an open book, a half-peeled orange, a hot plate, and a hand mirror strewn around her. Her arms and legs are spread, nonchalantly revealing generous underarm and pubic hair. The anecdotal realism of the scene is broken by a flaccid fork in the foreground and a lusty billy goat eyeing her from behind. Questions of class and labor return, here with a distinctly feminist edge, rich with enigmatic meaning and visual pleasure.