Washington, DC

Cheryl Laemmle

This exhibition of 17 large paintings by New York artist Cheryl Laemmle was a retrospective of her work from the ’80s. The exhibition had a cohesiveness about it that can be attributed to the artist’s simple, illusionistic style and her continued obsession with extremely personal autobiographical themes—childhood memories, family deaths, struggles for identity In the earliest works in the exhibition, Laemmle presents these themes through traditional classical symbols, such as a pomegranate (symbol of everlasting life) or a moth (symbol of reincarnation). Such symbols no longer have a common currency; they no longer “read” as they once did in support of narrative. Because of this, these symbols often remain mute and incomprehensible, implying precise meanings that do not readily unfold. Further, Laemmle combines animate and inanimate objects with simple illusionistic space and abstract design in a way that gives them a sense of mystery.

In Pomegranate, a work from the “Window Series” of 1981–82, a monkey crouching on a window frame stares at a goose decoy; between them in the middle-ground, a pomegranate rests on a table. The inexplicable narrative and subtly imbalanced pictorial space are unsettling; things seem poised for action, but in capable of moving. Inconsistent lighting and proportions are deliberately designed to undermine perspective and threaten collapse of the pictorial space. The window frame, illusionistically linked to the painting’s frame, further blurs the line between reality and illusion. Journey, a painting from the 1982–83 “Adirondack Series,” features a sailboat and a lea ness tree with bird decoys on it. Here Laemmle abandons overt symbols and uses dark, brooding tones to evoke consciously the elegiac mood of 19th-century seascapes. What rescues this work from romantic cliché or the irony of appropriation is its sense of nostalgia, of a scene remembered from childhood. That this world is make-believe is underscored by the small picket fence that Laemmle places at the bottom of the painting, as if to bracket it and memory from the viewer’s real space and the present.

In subsequent works, Laemmle has continued using many of the same devices with varying degrees of success. Her most recent paintings, the “Mannequin Head Series” from 1988–89, use faceless wig stands transformed into giant de Chiricoesque “portrait” heads. Their great size gives them something of the inspiring presence of Byzantine icons, while the personal objects surrounding them—a teddy bear, a braid of hair, doll slippers—evoke poignant memories of human presence. In contrast to Surrealist dream-pictures, Laemmle’s works are not fantastic illusions, but meditative evocations about what has been. Laemmle appears to be trying to keep her memories alive and intact by using painting as a way of suspending time. Her deeply felt treatment of certain recurring themes gives her painting an authenticity that precludes its being viewed as purely idiosyncratic. Rather than restricting meaning, Laemmle’s obsession makes for haunting, sometimes touching images in which meaning, lying just beyond perception and beneath the surface of consciousness, is felt and understood intuitively.

Howard Risatti