New York

Robin Tewes

Bill Maynes Gallery

Depicting suburban interiors that could easily have come straight out of the pages of 1950s McCalls or Good Housekeeping, but didn’t, Robin Tewes’ paintings evoke the oppressive chambers of childhood. In the works for this, her second solo show, she faithfully reproduces the accoutrements and palette of high suburbia: turquoise sofas, salmon-pink blankets, manila bedrooms with twin beds, olive-green playrooms. Certainly the artist’s style epitomizes the sense of order once demanded of the ’50s housewife—her surfaces are flat and impersonal, with all signs of brushwork suppressed. Indeed, Tewes’ unimaginatively decorated, perfectly ordered rooms are so dramatically tidy—corners carefully sharpened, fabrics made to look like steel—that domesticity becomes terrifying.

These interiors are inhabited by either a boy or girl, always alone, as though relegated to solitary confinement. As if to reinforce this sense of incarceration, a window opens onto a brick wall in Dawn of the Dark Ages (all works 1995); a doll is interrogated by her mistress beneath a preternaturally bright light in Do Unto Others; and stuffed animals assemble on the sofa like prisoners in an exercise yard in Me Too.

If life inside looks bleak, the subjects haven’t submitted completely to the mind-deadening authority of their environments. In two separate pictures, a boy is absorbed with paper and crayons and a girl casts shadow puppets on a brick wall. Each suggests the possibility of escape through imaginative enterprise, the psychic necessity of which is made evident by the writing on the walls, which resembles the kind of scrawl that appears in Annette Messager’s work and carries a similar message. In fact, to some extent, Tewes’ “rooms” look like the American equivalents of those in which this influential French artist most likely grew up, though here Messager’s catechismal “vows” are replaced by more desperate demands. “May I please . . . ?” is the title of a picture in which this supplication has been put into pretty script and politely set aside as a framed decoration. In I’m a White Male, the self-punishing repetition of “I will protect children . . . I will think before I act . . . I will be quiet . . . ” covers an entire wall, in which Tewes projects a fantasy of male self-recognition incompatible with the vintage ’50s interior in which he is placed. In these and other works, the words make audible the voices of unseen adults, perhaps the children’s parents or the parents these children seem destined to become. Elsewhere throughout these paintings, Rorschach-style marks decorate the walls and furniture. These signs of the most extreme recesses of interior space, suppressed though they are by the surroundings, flash danger. Though these pictures of old-fashioned interiors—windows into an era whose attitudes have become fodder for satire—may seem merely humorous, they present a chilling, all-too-familiar picture of the ways in which the roles of mommies and daddies, boys and girls, become circumscribed.

Ingrid Schaffner