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Zoey Frank: Summer Paintings at Sugarlift

Zoey Frank, After the Pool, oil on linen, 72 x132 in., 2021.

Zoey Frank: Summer Paintings


May 27 through July 31, 2021 (extended) 


I wrote recently about Nicolas Sanchez at Sugarlift Gallery. The gallery now presents Zoey Frank, another artist who, like Sanchez, has developed an astonishing arsenal of technique and, also like Sanchez, deploys it in service to a complex depiction of the process of memory. 

Frank’s show includes two gigantic paintings, Pool Party and After the Pool, centered on large families enjoying a summer day at a private swimming pool. The shared motifs – children, family, summer days, swimming pools – are all deeply infused with nostalgia. These are events which are nostalgic even as they take place. And so Frank has chosen subjects in which the past overpowers the present. They cannot help but be paintings about memory. 

Each painting unfolds the same basic concept of the mechanism of memory. Frank depicts memory as a discontinuous phenomenon. Consider the nuclear family depicted on a diagonal in the bottom right corner of After the Pool:

Zoey Frank, After the Pool (detail), oil on linen, 72 x132 in., 2021.

A single image dominates the passage: father above mother, both focused on their toddler. The light is flat and frontal, brilliant summer sunlight. The draughtsmanship is coherent and unified. And yet the image is difficult to read, because it is shattered into rectilinear regions of distinct paint handling. Here the mother’s face is creamy and subtle – there harsh and contrasty, the paint parched and thin. The value range of the toddler’s hair abruptly shifts halfway across his head. Parts of the father’s body are fully rendered, other parts are indicated with raw brushmarks. Memory stumbles over the surface of the scene, dredging up an image full of gaps and shifts in perception. A composition emerges which is distinct from the subject matter: a shimmering mosaic, a fragmentation of figure and ground into an overwhelming chaos of surfaces, of fronts and things-behind, suggesting we stand at the boundary to an endlessly iterated maze, sinking into a picture space very much apart from the actual scene depicted.

Zooming back to the entire painting, this method parallels the scintillation of an overbright summer’s day: a confusion of impressions, of decorative concrete walls and brightly colored pool toys and glistening wet skin and light and shadow on stairs and railings. And it also evokes memory of such a scene from long after – an overall idea remains of the location and the kind of day it was, but the exact people and who and where they were has become confused in a tangle of limbs and motion. From whose perspective is the painting painted? I would argue that of the toddler. He is not really on the right half of the composition. He is at the bottom center of it, and the scene looms above him. If you look closely enough, you will notice this painting repeats. The left half recapitulates the right half, in a decayed and abstracted state. The boy is at center bottom of the left side as well. Around him the blanket and his mother’s arm persist, but hollowed out, becoming indistinct, receding into purely formal elements of color and shape. Memory presents certain details consistently – a flower print, the angle of a leg – but it presents other elements in conflict: here was a face, there a mere daub of paint.  

The perspective of the painting is that of the child, but not as he is seen in the painting. He is remembering all of this as an adult. This jumble is the residue of his childhood, decades past: flat, bright, colorful, beautiful – irrecoverable. 

The similarly giant, ambitious Pool Party complements After the Pool.

Zoey Frank, Pool Party, oil on canvas, 114 x96 in., 2021. 

This painting presents a more coherent real space. Frank takes advantage of her more realistic scene to create virtuouso realistic passages: the gleam of sunlight on the transparent blue plastic of an inflatable dolphin – the glow of red plastic glasses frames – the aqua color of skin lit by bounce light from the swimming pool. She also foregrounds her sense that details lost to memory can be overwritten with patterns characteristic of the scene: throughout the image, clothing, walls, and sky are all rendered in flat tiled patterns. They keep their color, but their specifics have been lost. 

She matches the realism of her idiom with a persuasive theater in her figures. The two women hanging the cloth on the upper right are utterly believable in their expressions, postures, and grappling with the tangled cloth. They realistically perform a realistic action. 

Zoey Frank, Pool Party (detail), oil on canvas, 114 x96 in., 2021.

Similarly believable are the two women talking bottom left; the adult woman smiling at the little boy bottom right; and the two grandparents addressing the little girl at the very center of the image. All of these interactions are observed and rendered with an unforced, simple humanity. It has more in common with French and Italian realist filmmaking than it does with any other contemporary multi-figure painting. 

But I believe that this profusion of brilliant depiction is only half the purpose of the painting. Pool Party explores an element left relatively latent in After the Pool: the non-representational depth invoked by the fragmentation itself. A receding, ever-dimming maze exists in After the Pool, but that painting remains largely at the frenzied front of the picture plane. 

In contrast, Pool Party enters into the depths opened up by Frank’s idiom. Look at the overall composition. When have you ever seen a painting that is brightest at the edges and fades to darkness at the center? It is the exact opposite of a rule of composition – bright center, dark edges – so deep that it generally goes unnoticed. The image depicted justifies the central darkness to some extent – after all, this area is underneath an awning, the one shaded part of a very sunny day. But the awning alone does not motivate the entirety of the darkness. The elements of the image are arranged to dim down toward that central darkness. Not all of it is physically natural. Some it is just, again, the edges of Frank’s fractured representational idiom taking on a dark scale of their own.

Zoey Frank, Pool Party (detail), oil on canvas, 114 x 96 in., 2021. 

The richness of the idiom now emerges fully. On one level, we have a scene, a remembered scene, with a surface narrative of an extended family enjoying the raucous harmony of a summer pool party. And on another level, the inconstant mechanism of memory has rendered a pattern of lights and darks, surfaces and depths, which is not harmonious at all. The composition revolves around a central fear or sorrow or trauma which is unsupported by the visible elements of the composition. It seems likely to me that it is unsupported by the events of the scene themselves. I don’t think there is anything wrong with the little girl and her grandparents. And yet the painting, which I think represents the little girl’s memory, centers on grief in broad daylight. 

Frank’s double-layered system of representation effortlessly invokes that other quality of memory, the intense emotions linked to particular scenes of childhood, in which the linkage is no longer legible, leaving only events and feelings, perplexingly paired with one another as they hurtle into the mystery of the past.

I follow the work of hundreds of artists, often for years at a time, before I feel like I have anything to say. Often I never do, even when I like the work. I have followed Frank’s work since she was in graduate school. As she has earned the technical skills to match her enormous natural talents, she has become increasingly restless with the pictorial language historically associated with her training. She bristles with energy, seeking new forms of speech, new ways to make a picture. She has been working toward this fragmented paradigm for a long time now, and Summer Paintings represents the culmination of her work to date along these lines. 

I don’t think I understand all of what she’s doing. I don’t think she does either. I think she is following an obscure logic – a logic so obscure that it is indistinguishable from inspiration – with a furiously powerful will, in a direction that is not yet clear. She is a powerful and original painter. I have always been amazed at what she’s done, and on the edge of my seat to see where she goes next. WM 

Daniel Maidman

Daniel Maidman is best known for his vivid depiction of the figure. Maidman’s drawings and paintings are included in the permanent collections of the Library of Congress, the New Britain Museum of American Art, the Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art, the Long Beach Museum of Art, the Bozeman Art Museum, and the Marietta Cobb Museum of Art. His work is included in numerous private collections, including those of Brooke Shields, China Miéville, and Jerry Saltz. His art and writing on art have been featured in The Huffington Post, Poets/Artists, ARTnewsForbesW, and many others. He has been shown in solo shows in New York City and in group shows across the United States and Europe. In 2021 it will be included in the first digital archive of art stored on the surface of the Moon. His books, Daniel Maidman: Nudes and Theseus: Vincent Desiderio on Art, are available from Griffith Moon Publishing. He works in Brooklyn, New York. 

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