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ELENA SISTO Between Silver Light and Orange Shadow

Elena Sisto, “Self-Portrait (with Van Dongen),” 2011. Oil on linen, 33 x 40”. Image courtesy of the artist and Lori Bookstein Fine Art.

On View
Lori Bookstein Fine Art
April 25 – May 25, 2013
New York

What to make of Sisto’s paintings of young women? They are titled “Self-Portrait” although, unlike her, the subjects wear their hair cropped short, are somewhere in their 20s, and in general bear no resemblance to the artist. However, in each case the figure is a painter painting. The first-person narrator of fiction or poetry does not have to be the author herself, though such a construction may paradoxically yield personal truths otherwise inaccessible. Sisto’s subject, you might say, is an imagined artist or persona of whom these are self-portraits.

More than set pieces—“the artist in her studio”—these self-portraits are like moments within a dramatically charged narrative. Call the subject the ongoing and unpredictable drama of life in the studio. The young self is usually set against a light ground, her features softened, the edges of her face gently lit to show volume. Eyes, nose, and mouth are laid into wet paint with a few lines in a way that would seem naïve were it not for the disarming directness of their expression. The subject’s gaze is not focused on the viewer so much as at herself in an implied mirror. The title and the image of “Between Painting and Looking,”(2010) show such a moment.

In “Self-Portrait (with Van Dongen),”(2011) the artist is looking intently at a canvas turned away from the viewer, a reminder of Velázquez at work on his masterpiece. Unlike that aristocratic presence, Sisto’s painter clutches a splayed fistful of brushes in her right hand while the other, unseen, works on the canvas. Three reproductions are tilted on the wall behind her including Picasso’s portrait of a woman in white, and Van Dongen’s bare-chested red man. With one arm akimbo, perched between her head and the canvas; he seems to be peering over the young woman’s left shoulder. There is another figure left of the artist that suggests her reflection in a mirror, though the reflection is not perfect. All the figures appear to be watching the artist at work. Nothing in the picture is horizontal or vertical, it is as though everything is attesting to instability. The activity of painting is pictured as a grappling with perplexity. Other paintings show the artist—now looking rather like a teenager, sprawled on the floor or in one case, “Snafu”, 2011, tangled in her T-shirt. The subject is decidedly not the artist, as James Joyce put it, “within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”

The studio paintings are not “art about art” in the usual sense but art about making art. The range of surfaces and descriptive devices exemplifies Sisto’s focus on process. Variously applied paint shows the translucence and gestural character of watercolor, layers of revision during the search, slight impastos. Whites and grays serve as erasures, recalling Guston’s practice. Volume may result from one tone set against another or may be indicated by a loosely drawn contour that describes a white sleeve against the white studio wall as in “Self-Portrait (with Van Dongen).”

Works in more succinct formats show figures cropped to exclude heads, legs, and backgrounds. Some hark back to the small frescos George Schneeman made in the 1970s that pictured a shirt on a hanger and seem to derive from the same delight in the everyday. There are no faces or bodily indicators of gesture, but distinct personalities emerge from Sisto’s painterly juxtapositions of fabrics and appurtenances of style. Shapes, textures, individual items of clothing, are specific to the individualized characters they indicate. A shirt with checks, polka dots, or a printed pattern, a quilted vest, push forward to the picture plane. Everything is seen head-on as though to make abstractions of shape and color. Small items—buttons, a shadow cast by a collar or pocket flap, a decorative detail, and orangey-pinks used for linear shadows bring the focus back to the person represented. Like all of Sisto’s paintings, you feel they are completely inhabited and even daringly personal.

138 Tenth Ave. // NY, NY


Robert Berlind

ROBERT BERLIND is a painter and writer who lives in New York and upstate in Sullivan County. He has received the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Painting, the B. Altman Award in Painting at the National Academy, as well as grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and an Artwriters’ Grant from Creative Capital and the Warhol Foundation.

He writes regularly for the Brooklyn Rail and has written for Art in America since the late ’70s as well as writing many catalog essays for various museums. He is a Professor Emeritus of the School of Art+Design, Purchase College, SUNY.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2013

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