New York

Annette Oko

Andre Zarre Gallery

A painter whose recent work shows how relevant contemporary realism can be is Annette Oko. For the last 12 years Oko has concentrated on doing paintings of different storefronts in her Upper West Side neighborhood. An odd choice, you say? Not really Since the turn of the century the storefront has come to symbolize modern urban life. During the ’30s and ’40s, it turned up as the subject or as part of the background in the work of numerous painters, most notably Reginald Marsh and Edward Hopper. After World War II, the storefront again gained the attention of the art world with the rise of Pop art (one need only think of Red Grooms’ parodies), and during the mid ’70s, the period when Oko started doing her paintings, it emerged as a popular motif in the Photorealist repertory.

Although she does photograph the storefronts she depicts, and uses projected slides as a shortcut to scaling up her images, Oko is no Photorealist (despite the fact that in reproduction her paintings tend to look that way). What separates her paintings from standard Photorealist fare is the intensely expressionistic quality of their surfaces. This comes across most clearly in La Cabana, 1985, a representation of a fast-food shop, and Neet Cleaners, 1985. In La Cabana Oko succeeds in transforming a mundane and (in the hands of most other artists) throwaway scene into an image of tantalizing mystery by her use of evocative, luminous colors. Shown at night, this cheap stall with its display of fried chicken comes alive as a center of action on an otherwise darkened street. In Neet Cleaners, another nighttime scene, Oko offers a tour de force display of her considerable abilities as a colorist. Illuminated by different colored neon lights, the glass and metal-barricaded façade as well as the shadows cast on the sidewalk create incredibly complex patterns that Oko brings off with aplomb. Oko is motivated by a fascination with what she has called “the impenetrability of interior spaces in the city” and her paintings have additional value as documents of a lively street life whose existence is threatened by a rapid gentrification.

In addition to the storefronts, Oko also does paintings of windows of neighborhood buildings. Within this group, Winterlight, 1984, is outstanding. In this painting Oko displays her characteristic sensitivity to the vagaries of light, creating the illusion of an image emerging and coming into focus before our very eyes.

Ronny Cohen