Structured vs. sensual, rational vs. emotional, classical vs. baroque: these are common dichotomies in the world of art-making. I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that nearly all of past Western art is split between these poles, and perhaps can even be perceived as a battle between them. On the one side is our intellect and our need for order, which we can trace back to the philosophies of the ancient Greeks; on the other, the emotional, sometimes chaotic, side, coming from the sensual life of the body. The German art historian Heinrich Wolfflin divided all Western art into two impulses: Classic and Baroque. While Wolfflin was referring mainly to European painting, American critic and author Clement Greenberg applied this dichotomy further to include 20th century American painting. He suggested that abstract expressionism, often called “action painting,” still carried on the traditions of the Baroque impulse, while geometric abstraction and Constructivist formalism continued the rational, classical aspect of Western art. Sarah McKenzie’s paintings fuse the two, in beautiful and exciting ways.
McKenzie’s show at David B. Smith Gallery is entitled “White Walls” and is comprised of masterfully-painted, realistic depictions of the interiors of art museums. The clinical well-lit museum spaces, populated only by abstract paintings, are cool and serene. McKenzie, who has a history of painting architectural spaces, has painted views of museums that you might not normally expect: an angled view down a stairwell, or the furniture one often finds in large galleries, allowing visitors to sit in contemplation. People are conspicuous by their absence. The paintings are ordered with precise linear perspective, defining the space with convincingly real depth. Edges are sharp, geometric, and as I have alluded to above, follow the classical organization and rationality that Western art has possessed for centuries.
But look deeper, and the viewer will be rewarded with much more. Various details of the museum interiors, in particular the floors, glimpses of nature through windows, and expressionist paintings hanging in exhibition, are painted in surprisingly lush, painterly brushstrokes. (In fact, Wolfflin coined the term malerische, which roughly translates to painterly, to describe Baroque art.) These sensual, richly painted surfaces are a strong contrast to the clean interiors and eponymous white walls. The contrast of a faithfully reproduced, large, brushy DeKooning painting in the Whitney Museum, for example, is startling against the monochrome white and subtle violets and grays of shadows on adjacent blank walls. The paintings blend these two painting methods seamlessly and eloquently. In a sense, the artist has encapsulated the history of painting in a few remarkable works.
I came away from the show trying to decide how much was instinct on the part of this experienced and talented painter, and how much was conscious. Interpretations are problematic, but this theory suggests the artist is saying that the rich, textured brushstrokes as painted in the floors of the museums, and in views through windows, which I am calling the “sensual” and “natural,” are the foundation upon which the rational, architectural, ordered, “superstructure” of culture is built.
That’s a lot of philosophy for one series of paintings. But whether intended or not (and I’m sure it is) these paintings combine two seemingly opposed aspects of art and do it in visually stunning and articulate ways. The paintings are more than illustrative, they are language, well-crafted and intelligent.