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Review of selected works in “The Archetypes Themselves”

Spoons, swans, and thwarted flight. In the series of paintings by Becky Slemmons in the new show “The Archetypes Themselves,” it is difficult to comment on the entire body of work in terms of a unifying tone or narrative. On the far right is Sophia’s Tree. The tree is monumental; gnarled, light-dappled, and cradling in its roots several small pies. Beside it hangs Now if that was not enough of a spectacle itself, which features a the strange, slightly awkward (in the intentionally unsettling vein of Puvis de Chavannes) swan, wings dripping with spoons, neck bent in a cronishly. And wouldn’t I stay for a bowl? is the largest painting of the group, rendered in some places with the sort of brilliant smeared quality of a blurred photograph. It is an uneasy composition, replete with jarring intersections of utter flatness and painterly subtlety. It depicts three figures in a rather anonymous, teal-and-white interior; one is slicing an orange, one is hiding beneath a white drapery, and one stands pressed to the foreground, head and legs cropped, with white drapes (wings) hanging from her arms and searingly white gloves.

The three paintings on the far left, while also dealing with ideas of swans, spoons, and a transformation of cloth into wings, seem much more closely interconnected in content and color, and lend themselves far more easily to narrative musings. In the first (The wings had become heavier than expected), three figures, again in a bare but identifiably domestic setting, pursue the activities of putting away one of the motif cloth wings (which also is studded with spoons), lying on the floor writing, and, in the deepest shadows, reaching upward for a spoon. In the second (I write only what I see), a somewhat theatrical scene unfolds, with one figure looking down at wrinkled, spoon-freighted wings; one perhaps writing, legs crossed; one crouched, glaring sharply to the left; and one extending their arm in a pose that makes one think of a person holding a marionette. In the last (Sophia), the Sophia figure, in hat and a set of wings, faces the audience. Spoons dance around her in the air. In these three, a sense of very quiet, controlled drama is explored. The figures seem isolated, lost in their dreams, and the viewer has the discomfiting sense of being a voyeur into something secret, possibly taboo.

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The method of painting throughout assists with the hushed, vaguely staged, feel of the works. The palette is full of old-fashioned dense, raw colors, built up in glazes under which glimmers sporadically a ruby-red underpainting. The glazes are executed exquisitely, most notably in Sophia’s tree, with surprisingly diverse directionality of brushstrokes. From far away, they hum with a hazy, naturalistic sense of atmosphere; close up, the tiny strokes give the works a flurrying, anxious feel. By placing us in an illusionistic vocabulary of color and mark, we are submerged in the artificial world the artist creates. The visual hook of the beautiful coloring and intimate scale of the pieces further lends itself to lengthy contemplation of the pieces, which allows the viewer to consider, unhurried, the narrative possibilities before them.

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In light of this, the inclusion of the one very large piece, for me, weakens the group as a whole. It is too aggressive, and lacks the richness of the more compact images. Further, it breaks the works into the two sections I referred to, a schism that does nothing for the collection. I would like to see the images displayed either each in total isolation, or with the disparities in setting more satisfyingly addressed (since there is such unity in the left three pieces). The location of the works is also unfortunate. The pieces are hung across a gaping white wall, the first you swing into on entering the building. The wall feels as exposed as a cliff face, and the poetic paintings seem ill-suited to the unsheltered surface. I would rather see them placed in the heart of the exhibit, nestled like swan eggs, like folded wings, like silver spoons, in their own little nook; they need to be in a location where a viewer feels comfortable pausing and reflecting. All this aside, however, these works are, I think, technically excellent and deeply resonate with my visual proclivities. I admire the tactful use of underpainting and the patience of the glazing; these are characteristics I would love to develop in my own practice.

– Sima Krtalic