Immersion: Sara Frankel at the Halsey Gallery
In the Romantic era, in the early-nineteenth century, figures immersed in water signified a tragic fate, and expressed well a sense of anxiety in an age of revolution. From Anne-Louis Girodet’sDeluge,(1) a picture inspired by Nicholas Poussin’s earlier version of the fatal Biblical flood,(2) to Paul Delaroche’s Young Martyr,(3) to the English Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais’s masterpieceOphelia(4)-dunking meant drowning. It connoted despair, but also the hope for a hero to save the victim. Or, rather, the need for a hero in the first place (despite the fact that the original “Hero” in Ancient Greece witnessed her lover Leander drown in a storm as he swam the Hellespont to see her). Swimming as more placid recreation is a resolutely modern practice, despite the profusion of public baths in ancient Rome. Even in the late-nineteenth century, while people flocked to the seaside, they avoided the ocean itself.
Sara Frankel’s new work is of this Romantic ilk. This is ok. Ten years ago maybe not. But today it is kosher, when pluralism has replaced rigid theory, when art historians can again discuss surface and content and history and culture and life. When artists can once again express figuratively, and minimalism is more commonly relegated to dining room sets and sculptural memorial projects. Frankel’s recent work does not always promote a dialogue of dependency in the Romantic mode but, rather, essays in independence. Many of her subjects, often people close to her and even her family, enter the water with confidence. They are seen at sharp angles, with low horizons, emphasizing their liquid absorption.
Four years ago in Massachusetts Frankel was painting pictures of bodily organs suspended in the air, trailing veins and entrails and jetting across landscapes, works of grim mood and imagery and clotted surfaces. The present works mark a literal return to earth, and a response to local scenery of South Carolina. In a literal sense, there is more opportunity for bathing in the coastal Carolinas than in central Massachusetts, and such works connote a swimmer’s delight, but also may posit an underlying anxiety absent from New England late summers and autumns. I am thinking of hurricanes, and the recently completed Aftermath shows a scene related to the Romantic images cited above. A woman with the likeness of the artist on the left covers her eyes while carrying a young girl piggyback. The horizon hugs the top of the linen support, but reveals a smattering of suburban detached homes, telephone poles, streetscapes. The figures are in their bathing suits so, of course, something is not quite right here. Post-hurricane, does recreational swimming factor in one’s weekend plans? In the center a woman dives down under the surface, her buttocks buoyant. But a closer look may lead one to think that her body is lifeless, and her resurfacing unlikely. In the left middle ground a girl with closed eyes hovers in the water, her face exposed only from the nostrils up, and on the right a man tilts his head back to catch the radiant sun. But is he a sun bather or flotsam? Viewing such works and the family elements within them could trigger associations with recent tsunamis, and a sense of empathy, albeit from a distance. It is no wonder that the woman in the left foreground covers her eyes to avoid the carnage. Works like The Reach, also posed by the artist, seem to have a similar sense of uncertainty and need for direction. Apprehension pervades such pictures, and a sense of the intimate powerlessness felt by so many of us in this particular era, with threats beyond the wrath of only nature. Surrounded by domestic jetsam, she reaches out into the void of the lower edge of the support.
Throughout some of these works, single or bi-level suburban homes rise in the distance (see Ivan) or, sometimes quite magically, as in Flight, appear in the water, as some strangely inverted reflection or a distant view of an island landscape. Flight’s imagery and title confound expectations. Is the figure airborne, or evading pursuit? Are the bubbles flattened shapes or miniature windows on the world, traditional vanitas symbols representing the brevity of life and death in art since the Renaissance? This picture has a fine, dank tonality, the dark tones energetically colliding with, and repulsed by, the girl’s moving frame.
Careful inspection of two of the oils, Golden Girl and Large Green Woman, is revealing. In the former, the title seems again multi-referential-in a shimmering gold pool a female King Croesus clutches a floating white parcel while another sack, perhaps filled with treasure as in the story of that vain ruler of ancient Asia Minor, binds her right ankle and moors her to the spot. In Large Green Woman, the figure appears to be engaged in a confident backstroke but we sense that her progress is in jeopardy, as her lower left leg is entwined by a rope attached to a series of murky objects-pieces of lumber-that slowly wend their way to the ocean floor. The pleasure of these fluid and densely colored surfaces is mitigated by the menace literally below the surface. The bodily distortions, so well observed through study of figures in water and photographs, convey both movement and instability.
Most sensitive is the lovely series of three images of the artist’s daughter, Lucy, floating on her back, in large ink wash images titled Lucy Floating I and Lucy III, and the exquisite watercolor Lucy Up Close. Her hair spread wide, her head back, her eyes closed in bliss, this is no doomed Ophelia. With the bodily movement from right to left, and heads nearing the lower left corner of the paper, they remind me of Gustave Courbet’s unabashedly erotic masterpiece, Woman with a Parrot,(5) in which tendrils of hair fill the image, and the woman throws her head back in abandon, her eyes bright, yes, and her mouth open revealing shimmering teeth. Her pleasure is derived from a spirited parrot, but Lucy’s is far more chaste and sublime. It is a different aspect of Romanticism that is channeled here-a joy in childhood and its sense of wonder and opportunity. It is simultaneously a delight in immersion, and the release of tension attendant to lazing on the pool’s glistening surface.
JASON ROSENFELD is Assistant Professor of Art History at Marymount Manhattan College, New York, New York. He received his Ph.D. from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University and is currently completing a monograph on Sir John Everett Millais for Phaidon Press, as well as curating an exhibition on the artist at Tate Britain, London to open in 2007.
Copyright © 2005 Jason Rosenfeld. Reprinted by permission. All rights expressly reserved.