New York

Ariana Papademetropoulos, Self Portrait 1996, 2022, oil on canvas, 41 3⁄8 × 27 3⁄8".

Ariana Papademetropoulos, Self Portrait 1996, 2022, oil on canvas, 41 3⁄8 × 27 3⁄8".

Ariana Papademetropoulos

“Why is this unicorn so sad?,” a viewer might have wondered upon visiting Ariana Papademetropoulos’s show of new paintings here. Blue in both cast and mood, the forlorn ungulate appeared across three pictures and in various stages of maturity, awash in ennui. Perhaps the poor beast was dismayed to find it had yet again been saddled with a kind of meaning it never wanted in the first place (historically it has functioned as a symbol of Christ, but also of virginal purity, which can get confusing). The medieval Europeans were simply daffy about unicorns and churned out countless tapestries depicting their ghostly beauty. Philosopher Pliny the Elder described the unicorn as an uncapturable creature of immeasurable ferocity, while the painter Domenichino, who disagreed, rendered it as though it were a tender puppy.

In this show, the artist employed the quadruped as a psychic avatar, as in her painting of a runty phantasmagoric unicorn crying a single, glycerin-like tear, titled Self Portrait 1996 (all works cited, 2022). Her proxy is both innocent and not—already familiar with suffering. Papademetropoulos’s choice of spirit animal could be read as immodest, telegraphing the artist’s self-assured rarity among her peers, or her ability to stay in the picture. Still, being the object of fascination is exhausting. In every piece that included the animal, it was willing itself to disappear.

Papademetropoulos’s work suggests the possibility of alternate worlds, yet her art stops short of depicting anything untoward. When the occult presents itself, it does so gently. Her scenes are highly legible, familiar but only faintly skewed, like dreams, which everyone thinks are interesting to hear about but rarely are. Altogether, the works form a kind of loose bildungsroman, rich with Southern Californian mythmaking; they also offer up a glancingly feminist exegesis on the gender politics of fairy tales and their hollow promises.

The artist works large, and some of the paintings here were more than seven feet tall—about the height of a standard doorway—underscoring the function of painting as portal. This was the case in the diptych composed of View from Tower I and View from Tower II. In the former, a spectral woman gazes upon an inhospitable terrain from a high window, either awaiting a visitor or sizing up the drop and the prudence of making a break for it. Wispy, attenuated, and covered by just a scrap of gossamer bedsheet, she would look like a ghost even if she were solid. Cast in turquoise, the tableau evokes the fantasia of teenage yearning and the angst of experiencing sexual awakening while being grounded in your bedroom. There’s no sight of that figure in the latter image, where a similarly crystalline unicorn has entered the frame. The two miss each other like Swarovski ships in the night. Presumably the desired effect is one of psychic dissolution, but there is something droll about a magical horse barging its muzzle through a window—like Mister Ed as realized by Lisa Frank.

Papademetropoulos is a skilled painter. She can make her medium comply and wants you to know it. She’s partial to rendering translucency and does so with such frequency that its thrills begin to wane. But her technical acumen doesn’t summon the subconscious weirdness of Leonora Carrington or the metamorphic eroticism of Leonor Fini, Surrealist forebears whom the artist clearly admires. Instead, she works in a mode similar to those of many other young figurative artists—such as Ewa Juszkiewicz and Nicolas Party—who are enamored with a classicizing style punctured by vague doom, the popularity of which makes sense for obvious reasons: Society is unstable, sinister actors operate with impunity, and much of the world is heating up or is actively on fire. Yet the paintings here seemed more focused on a kind of self-indulgent melancholia. The works shared a bathetic solipsism—haunted less by longing but more by lack of a better metaphor. If everything is ominous, then nothing is.