New York

Cheryl Laemmle

Terry Dintenfass, Inc.

The term magical realism has special relevance with respect to the painting of Cheryl Laemmle. Since the early ’80s she has gained respect for her ability to conjure a wondrous realm characterized by psychologically charged atmospheres and filled with fantastic forms. In this show, Laemmle has succeeded in raising the expressive ante by heightening the imaginative intensity of her enigmatic representations.

The motif of the wooden animal has long been a trademark of Laemmle’s, and here, in Dog With Hand (all works 1990), a hound’s head is displayed mounted on a short red base that suggests a collar. A gold chain hangs from a nail protruding from the dog’s neck and rests on a table, its opposite end attached to another nail hammered into a sketch of a hand that is tacked to a rectangular piece of wood. The dog’s mouth and nose do not quite touch the piece of wood but come close enough to make it seem that the dog is sniffing this area out. The large scale of the dog’s head in proportion to the rest of the composition raises the question of whether or not the animal is “alive,” as does the dramatic lighting emphasizing the black and white striations of the grained wood surfaces.

These formal devices—placement, scale, and lighting—prod the viewer to decipher the meaning of this rebuslike painting. If the head is viewed as a sculpture, the depicted hand as a drawing, and the surface of the wood as trompe l’oeil painting, then the picture becomes a tantalizing art-about-art play on reality and illusion. If, however, the head of the dog is seen as enchanted—as animated by some spark of life—then a whole different set of responses is triggered. With Chico Bowline, in which the protagonist is a donkey’s head and the auxiliary motif is a rope, associations seem to concern the subjugation of the animal instinct, since a donkey head is presented as a kind of trophy, an object to be adorned according to the whim of the owner. Here the donkey is shown with a hoop around one ear and sheets of paper between the eyes as well as on its neck.

The thing about Laemmle’s world in general is that there is nothing predictable about it. The animals featured in Cat With Fox (Imaginary Playmates) are strangely human, with joy and pleasure animating their wooden features. The rabbit in the painting Open Book is shown perusing a volume, while a toylike donkey is tipped on its side. In the painting Self Portrait (Curl), what we take to be the artist is a wooden mannequin head with a curl of hair taped to the forehead, a braid attached to one side, and a colored drawing of what appears to be a red bird on a branch covering the face. The element of surprise built into Laemmle’s most powerful imagery triggers a delightful play of references. Associations ranging from blockhead to pinup to idol enliven this drolly speculative project.

Ronny Cohen