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Art's Next Wave

Today's Artists are Creating Distinctive and Thought-Provoking Works, and Making a Name for Themselves in the Process
Andrew Decker
From the Print Edition:
Orlando Hernandez, Mar/Apr 99

(continued from page 1)

The "Once in Love with Amy" series dealt with a long-standing issue: What is the viewer bringing to the image in front of him? Less uncomfortably titillating was Adler's 1995 series, "The Problem Child," which were drawings of antisocial children at play. The implied question: How do we nurture and deal with parts of our society, or ourselves, that we can't control?

Thirty-four-year-old Sharon Lockhart constructs her photographs, too, although there's no collaging, no hand-built models. Instead, her eye is selective and deliberate, and in her interiors, time is suspended. Although that's true of any photograph, which captures no more than a moment, Lockhart's work feels as if there can be no past, no present.

Lockhart is a director, and the scenes she puts together are commonplace enough. A woman standing in her apartment, lost in thought. A girl slumped over, her head resting on a glass table full of reflections. The stillness of these images is eerie and contrived. For Lockhart, photography and art have nothing to do with capturing a moment of reality; she prefers oblique moments that defy interpretation.

At the same time, the pictures are wonderfully printed and can be visually striking, particularly the outdoor scenes. A shot looking down a cliff at a churning sea shows exquisitely graded but subtle colors and a terrific range of textures, from the swirling ocean to the rough-hewn cliff. A scene of a man holding his child as they look into a snowstorm is shot from the back. One might start to wonder whether they're waiting for someone to appear through the mist or are on their way somewhere. Or maybe it's as simple as a man and a child sharing the spectacle of a snowstorm.

Most people probably wouldn't know what to do with an overactive imagination, a sense of humor and a sense of loss, and a huge range of visual images bounding around in their head. Fortunately for Amy Sillman, she's an artist who can wrestle those diverse elements into some kind of order on canvas.

Sillman, who is in her mid-40s, paints everything from almost cartoonish doodles to words to Eastern characters to landscapes, in a fluid, almost ethereal wash. The combinations could easily look like a train wreck, and at times her paintings are so cluttered and dense that they can be agitating. But her 1997 works are more spare. In "Miniature Illinois," Sillman presents an incredibly simple scene: water, a beach, a small tree to the far left and a grayish sky. But simple as the composition is, she's used oil paint and the thinner gouache to create a wonderfully varied surface that somehow suggests depth in a painting as flat as any piece of folk art. "Ocean 2" is nothing less than a ravishingly beautiful work: simple in its use of color to suggest sea, foam, beach and sky, and a masterpiece of colors. What comes through in Sillman's work is a kind of diffidence and curiosity combined with a compulsive love of what she's doing. She's just one of those people who loves to play with paint, and her love shows.

Among other things, art should bring you into a world outside your own experience. Shahzia Sikander, 29, achieves that in large and small scale. A native of Pakistan, Sikander learned the rigorous tradition of miniature painting (intensely detailed, 8 1/2-by-11-inch narrative works) in her home country, where she also began studying Western techniques. She furthered her knowledge of the latter when she attended the Rhode Island School of Design. Indian gods and goddesses show up in her small works, the female figures sometimes floating, unfettered. Greek-patterned plates are layered over tea-stained paper, giving a feeling of warmth and depth to Sikander's densely imaged, complex art.

While the small East/West hybrid works are gems, they're outdone by a few murals that Sikander exhibited last spring. Loosely painted and diaphanous, the murals comprise a range of paints that create open, haunting imagery that makes no particular sense but which is compelling and draws you in. Figures float, colors seem to shift, and the effect is nearly hallucinatory.

Julie Roberts's work may not be hallucinatory but is unsettling just the same, a kind of Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde act. Meticulously painted subtle abstract patterns (checks, grids or stripes) are backgrounds for lushly, violently painted suggestive or horrific images. A toppled chair lies next to a séance table, as if the sitter was undone by the experience. Some paintings show nineteenth-century medical instruments that belong in the Tower of London; another one shows Sigmund Freud's desk. In "Crime of Passion," an Oriental carpet floats on the abstract background. The rug supports three chairs, a lovely little table and a young corpse.

There's much to imagine in these scenes, which are dark, mysterious and unsettling. It's enough to make the viewer question Roberts's belief in God. The 35-year-old Englishwoman has denied the allegation that she is an atheist, saying, "Even in the mortuary-slab/operating-table paintings there has always been a reference to the altarpiece--and to the sacrifice." But the question is, to whom?

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