New York

Cheryl Laemmle

Barbara Toll Fine Arts

The sympathetic specter of René Magritte floats around Cheryl Laemmle’s paintings. Illusionistic, handsomely painted, and “realistic” in ways reminiscent of the demure work of the Belgian fantasist, her work similarly is based on a set of images laden with associations. But unlike Magritte, Laemmle seems not to engage these symbols as parts of a larger rebus. There seems to be no narrative, no cumulative meaning to her paintings. They are enigmatic, but they are not puzzles.

That each is in itself a small drama Laemmle makes pointedly clear. Elaborately rendered frames are painted on the faces of the pictures, shallow stage space is employed throughout, and painted Masonite props—rocks, trees, birds, a cabin—hang at either side of, above, or below the rectangular paintings. A kindred repertory of flora and fauna inhabits the canvas centerpieces. The world depicted is a natural one, but one devoid of humans.

Instead, anthropomorphic qualities have been transferred to the monkeys, fox, and birds that get front stage com-positionally. A curious owl, its heart-shaped head featureless, turns outward while a timorous monkey rests on a tree limb in White Owl, for instance. In Big Fox with Angel a giant red fox, leaning with its front paws against the illusionistic frame, peers down at a pinkish angel done up prom-style in a knee-length “formal,” its face again featureless. A white cane leaning on the frame in another diagonal composition plays against a stubby tree opposite, its limbs filled with a variety of ominous black painted birds. The trunk is being bored into by an oversized red-headed woodpecker. The grounds in all of these paintings are treated as backdrops—unpopulated, idealized land- or seascapes. By contrast, the shaped flanking elements—an illuminated log cabin and a tree, a pair of poplars, a boulder and sharpened stump, respectively—lend the requisite air of earthbound reality. Never mind that they are scaled at whim, bigger or smaller than the central subjects as the mood calls for.

The back wall of the gallery was given over to a 73-piece installation of painted Masonite trees, a small stone house in their midst. This vast copse underscored for me the skillful illusion animating all the paintings, which I take to concern humanity’s self-imposed isolation in nature. The called-for mood in this and the other paintings evokes muteness; profound feelings go unshared for want of a common language or, in some cases, the facial features necessary to communicate. Laemmle’s restraint in presenting traditional, well-painted subjects, in a manner that makes full use of the disjunctive powers of collage, is rare today. Like Magritte, she appears to realize that plumbing the depths of bourgeois sexuality, liberating images so that they can exist in a surreal—“beyond realism”—state, more often than not guarantees little, all of it precious. What mysteries remain do so with the tolerance of the outer world; we are its creatures still in spite of ourselves.

Richard Armstrong