Venus at Her Mirror
By Mark Bloch
On a recent Saturday I returned to the Smith-Stewart Gallery, just across the street from the parking lot where Whitehotmagazine.com had its trucks parked for its New York Launch event, to get a better look at the Fall show that opened that night. I needed to see it again.
I moved closer to the far wall. I had thought it was a photograph but saw now that the very carefully depicted purples and magentas of the background had been, upon inspection, wantonly applied in a very painterly manner. Haphazard, action painting-like brushstrokes seemed almost scrubbed on what, only moments before, was, in my mind, first machine-made and then an exercise in precision and control. And yes, it was, but now I could see there were also wilder, more untamed forces at work here.
The centerpiece of this paradoxical show, “Ylva 1985 1” is a portrait of a reclining pre-adolescent female human being, callow, naive, nascent, puerile, tender, unfledged and unripe; a girl lying in a pool of light, teetering on the edge of a more experienced, mature, sophisticated, worldly realm. And that realm just might be the point of view of a talented painter in 2007, who, using the visage of her youthful, guileless, untrained and untried former self as a point of departure, set out to pay homage to masters of both still life and the human form from France and Italy, Flanders, Holland and Spain. Vanitas, a form of still life painting occurring in the Baroque period that was executed with the utmost realism, dangerously elevated beautiful physical objects to exalted heights while simultaneously admonishing the viewer to beware of material preoccupations. It seemed to be wagging a cautionary finger at me now.
This was no Nan Goldin subject in thick makeup and high heels holding a cigarette, sucking face with the New York club scene as backdrop. Nor was this Jon Benet, or even the late 1970s Brooke Shields. No, the time was a few years later-- 1985 and the place was where the artist grew up in a commune. Ylva Ogland’s father took pictures of her, not particularly arty snapshots, which she then transformed into these sometimes luscious and always slightly disturbing paintings-- some 22 years later. They emanate an intensely sunlit, sacred innocence but there is also a lingering Lolita-like sensuality that screams subtext whether you want it to or not. The collision is unnerving.
I was chatting with the proprietor, Amy Smith-Stewart, former P.S. 1 curator and also formerly in the employ of both Mary Boone and Peter Norton. Very impressive. As I looked around her small gallery, I wondered, why had she selected this artist? Standing beside me as I looked, she invoked a comparison not to Amy Fisher but to Anne-Louis Girodet's gender-bending painting, “The Sleep of Endymion” painted in Rome in 1791 which features the reclining male form of a beautiful young shepherd, not a chiseled hard body like those idealized by his master, Jacques-Louis David, but something far more ambiguous like Ogland’s self-portrait. Girodet's Enymion, too, is a soft-shell chiaroscuro object of angelic desire and there, the moon goddess Selene guiltily falls in love with the subject from the corner of the canvas.
In the present show, that job falls to us, the half-smitten viewers just curious enough to want to know more. The myth goes that with his body parts engaged in hide and seek with her as well as with the painting’s viewer, the onlooking Selene begged Zeus to give the boy immortality. The wish was granted, but on the condition of putting him to eternal sleep. Despite this banishment to the world of the subconscious, Selene visits him nightly and it appears naughtily, for he fathers fifty daughters for her—all from his slumber.
That implied passive and slightly aggressive but inevitable fall from grace is suggested here, too, whether the portrait of the artist as an eleven-year-old ingénue is sleeping or merely contemplating her reality with eyes closed. Meanwhile, we contemplate the same, eyes open. Should the suggested essence of impending putrefaction be too subtle, it is more boldly manifested by the show’s other eye-opening paintings, including one of the same eleven year old sitting upright in a chair, her dawning woman’s body less hidden in “Ylva 1985 2”. Today’s “To Catch a Predator” society has instructed us to look away lest we linger too long in consideration of this most compelling and confusing time of life.
In case the summoning, bludgeoning undertow of paradox was too nuanced in these two works, there are blatantly erotic fully-grown vulvae for you to peruse. Called Tondos, from the word “round” in Italian, (named for the 5 inch canvases, not the subject matter) a couple of these tiny self-portraits of a more adult nature are interspersed between the memories, self-portraits not of the artist as a youth living in a Swedish commune, but safely here and now. In pale grays, these external parts of the most vulnerable feminine areas are depicted, shown being explored in one by the artist’s barely visible fingers, the same way the she explores her own memory for subject matter in the other paintings where menacing memories of hypodermic needles interrupt idyllic landscapes of roses, strawberries, toy trucks and flower pedals. When the cozy comfort of doll houses and stuffed bunnies is set against needles and strategically-placed mirrors in these monochromatic recollections, a dreamy vitality cohabitates with the impossibility of escaping from physicality, aging and pain.
“Atlantis,” as in a lost island of optimism, shows poppies arrayed in the background and a spoonful of heroin up front. The black lettering of the title on the spine of a book (or a picture frame?) pops out of the composition, perpendicular to a syringe that stands on end like an erect Chrysler Building in a skyline of bunnies, candles and soft sexy shapes. A pin cushion-like blob reminiscent of yet another vulva might also be the inside of a poppy. In all of these paintings, imagery in one refers to other works (pun intended) in the room. Needles and mysterious stuffed animal shapes appear and reappear. The girl’s face in one picture shows up, cropped, as part of another. The lettering of “Atlantis” like the word “Once” in another image that dares us to continue bearing witness to remembered contraband as still life, is the darkest thing in a scene while the white flame of a candle is the lightest, whispering to another one across the room.
The 17th century Candle Light Painters, who created scenes in which a candle was the only source of illumination, come to mind. But for Ogland, as in Caravaggio, that group’s initial inspiration, candles are not the actual source of light but merely a subject to be rendered. Caravaggio also came to mind in the previously mentioned “Ylva 1985 2,” when I noticed her torso adorned with a hardedge chiaroscuro jellyfish shape, also reminiscent of shadows thrown by his readymades that Duchamp photographed.
Finally, though, I was reminded of Gerhard Richter’s objects of desire, three foot square canvasses of candles fetching 3 to 6 million dollars at auction that would not have been caught dead in a Swedish commune. While the show’s title and presumably “Ylva 1985 1” are a nod to Velázquez’s vulnerable Venus in one of most famous poses in the history of Western painting, it became clear that many other historic references, contemporary and centuries old, could also have provided apt titles. The artist’s reflection, self-conscious and sensual, chaste and untouchable, just like the Goddess of Love to whom she gives a “shout out,” squints though the light of her blossoming eleven year old self, then stares ever more confidently into the flickering shadows of art history. http://www.smith-stewart.com