Philadelphia

Sarah McEneaney

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Sarah McEneaney’s paintings are enlivened by the contradietory effects produced when romantic sensibility meets realist painting. At once obsessively observant and psychologically loaded, her autobiographical works celebrate both the power of the imagination and the particulars of McEneaney’s own life. The paintings’ apparent subjects include landscapes viewed on recent trips, but her richest investigations mine the familiar spaces of her home and studio. She pictures herself alone, often lying down, asleep or reading, or just staring at the ceiling. Though her dog or cat sometimes appear, these images portray solitude in a way that subtly distinguishes being alone from being lonely. In Pink and Blue, 1995, McEneaney depicts herself in a pink tub under bluish water, blowing bubbles, as if to echo Thoreau, that master of solitude, who said “I am no more lonely than the loon in the pond that laughs so loud.” If it were only the narrative setting the mood, one could argue a darker reading of this image—the artist exhaling her last breath in her last bath. But the tub is too pink, the paint dances too joyously across the water for such thoughts to stick.

Deflecting the limitations of what sometimes appears to be a naive realism, McEneaney has grown masterful at integrating art-historical lessons with her own authentic experience. Painting with egg tempera, she illuminates her images with layers of transparent color, delicately applied with very fine brushes. The works’ jeweled palette recalls the tradition of Indian miniature painting, as do the lines with which her figures are drawn and the nonperspectival space they inhabit. While McEneaney’s work has been linked to that of Florine Stettheimer and Horace Pippin, it has more of an affinity with Matisse’s formally experimental paintings, made between 1908 and 1917. Like the master’s works, hers incorporate Eastern influences by describing a tilted, flattened, and decorative view of the world. In Sleep, 1996, the artist lies on her back while holding the tail of her napping cat. Casting no shadows, they float together on a bed painted a brilliant red. The dreamer’s face is more a general blush than a concrete description of form. ‘What is apparently the patterned rug above resists the strictures of perspective, suggesting, instead, a crowded vision of planets suspended in the night sky. Even the artist’s white, cropped clothing contributes to the work’s exoticism.

Drawing from Matisse and Eastern painting to achieve her own painterly simultaneity, McEneaney fuses the literal, physical world with imaginary spaces. Even the many representations of a woman alone are prefigured in both these sources, though in Matisse’s case the artist is present as the male other, if only as animplied gaze. In Indian miniatures, by contrast, the private nature of the moment when a woman awaits her lover is underscored by strong colors, an abstract conception of space, and an elegant use of line. McEneaney’s work suggests a similar story and possesses the same contemplative dignity. Yet, in a bedroom scene where the artist is pictured lying across her bed, the curtains are stirring and the agitated paint surrounding the wall lights begins to ruffle the work’s reflective tone. As extended self-portraits, McEneaney’s images are compelling in their mixture of vulnerability and quirky sophistication.

Eileen Neff