Gallery openings can be uncomfortable affairs, with too many bodies jammed into small, unventilated spaces. Painter Isabel Emrich’s “Progressions” opening last weekend at Skidmore Contemporary Art at Bergamot Station was no exception, but the work itself provided a visual oasis from the oppressive heat and humidity. It’s her second one-woman show at Skidmore — always hospitable to contemporary realist painters — and Emrich’s oils exude luxuriant cool.
Emrich’s new series, all executed this year, is a dozen or so depictions of face-and-head fantasias of young women in various degrees of submersion in swimming pools. The aqua blues and greens of the swimming pools ripple and reflect on the warm skin tones and floating manes that flow across the picture planes. These are lyrical explorations that exult in color and the act of painting itself. They move easily between realism, symbolism and expressionism, on mostly large canvases.
Viewed from across the gallery, the eye blends the colors and brush strokes and swashes of these pieces, which often dance across the surfaces. Closer examination shows a canny mix of thin washes with squiggly tributaries for background areas, rich cascades of hair tones, and thicker impastos for surface overlays.
While the structural qualities (proportion, angles, placement, rendering) are solid, the paintings have an air of capricious improvisation. If it needs to be stated, that’s a tough one to pull off. Just 24 years old, Emrich is still developing, but her work is already quite impressive.
These paintings are dreamlike but they have understated but undeniable power. They are also concerned with beauty, a severely devalued quality in contemporary art. The high art establishment has sneered at beauty ever since it embraced modernism in the 20th Century. Even within the grudgingly rehabilitated genre of painting, artists, academics and critics seem to have a demographic allergy to beauty. And just who was it who decreed that the gruesome has more inherent value than beauty?
Courageous, 2018, Oil on canvas, 40″ x 30″
Horizontal Embrace, 2017, Oil on canvas, 30″ by 36″
Learning from the Past, 2018, Oil on canvas, 48″ x 36″
Isabel Emrich ‘Progressions‘ | Skidmore Contemporary Art | thru Aug 4
Kirk Silsbee publishes promiscuously on rock, jazz and the visual arts. He has been an arts·meme contributor for five years.