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March 23, 2001

Grisaille Technicolor

Ena Swansea Gray 2001, oil on linen 108 x 108 inches, Courtesy Robert Miller Gallery

News is just in that Ena Swansea, one of the thirty eight artists featured in this year’s Invitational Exhibition of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, has been selected by the Academy’s Hassam Purchase Committee.  This committee purchases works for future presentation to American museums.  Another of the sixteen artists so-honored this year is Nicole Eisenman, whose work was featured in this column.  To mark this significant event, this week I profile the work of Ena Swansea.  An earlier version of this article was published in Artnet Magazine [see the article] on the occasion of the artist’s debut exhibition at the Robert Miller Gallery in November 1999. 

ENA SWANSEA paints - as she converses - with voluptuous intelligence.  Of course, it’s a bit of a presumption to impose such a statement upon a viewer solely privileged to know her work.  What can be stated quite objectively, however, is that compressed within the strange limitations of her palette is an expansive range of hue and tone; that the smooth sheen of her surface understates an elaborate choreography of brushmark; that her ethereal compositions pulsate with living intensity.  Subtle and unobstrusive as these pictures at first appear, they are actually rude with painterly activity in the way a person can be rude with good health.


According to Pliny, the first artist was a woman who painted shadows.  It is recounted in Book XXXV of his Historia Naturalis that a Corinthian maid, the daughter of Boutades, a potter from Skyon, drew the silhouette of her fiancé, who was about to go abroad, from the shadow of his head cast on the wall by a candle.  Her father then filled in the outlines with clay and modelled the face in relief so that his daughter would have a souvenir of her beloved to console her in her loneliness. 


Ena Swansea's painted shadows exude such voluptuous intelligence that admirers are lured into mixed metaphor: "she illuminates shadow".  At the opposite end of history from Pliny's Corinthian maid, she can be said to paint in the shadow of tradition, but rather than capitulating to prognostictions about "the end of art history" and playing fashionable end-games with style, she basks in the light of the masters, whose techniques she distils.


Initially seductive for their very coyness, these pictures gradually reveal strengths precisely in those areas where a given quality seemed sparse.  Compressed within the strange limitations of her palette, for instance, is an expansive range of hue and tone (her grisaille is technicolor!)  The smooth sheen of her surface understates an elaborate choreography of brushmark.  Ethereal compositions actually pulsate.  One of the minimalists talked about art that's smart enough to be dumb. Swansea is smart enough just to be quiet, to steer a gentle course between the histrionics of self-expression, the pedantry of observation, the rhetoric of reduction.


Painted shadows flutter in and out of the history of art just like real shadows on a sunny fall day.  Sometimes they are a detail to make illusion the more complete, sometimes an excrescence to be sacrificed on the altar of artifice.  The Impressionists are credited with the discovery of the color in shadow.  Swansea steps back from the expressive overstatement of this truth to reintroduce an element of surprise. Color, like form, is to be softly intimated, to pursuade gently.  But let's not overplay this subtlty business: Swansea is cinematic in immediacy and scale; as in a movie-house - or concert hall - quietness envelops us, nuance is there for us.


What a wonderful subject shadows are for an artist negotiating a space for herself between abstraction and representation.  They are nature's readymade art.  To paint them is to ackowledge a platonic status for art that is at once dismissive and compelling, for shadows are a byproduct, fleeting, elusive, distortive of the things they latch onto, a sensation revealed in time.  To fix a shadow is to arrest time more impertinently than virtually any other kind of mimesis.  To paint shadows is to advertise the affinities between the chosen medium and subject, the elusiveness and quirkiness of each. 


Swansea might have eavesdropped Gauguin's advice to Emile Bernard: "If, instead of a figure, you put the shadow only of a person, you have found an original starting point, the strangeness of which you have calculated."*  Her shadows are palpable, but the objects that might have cast them are spirited away.  In a similar conceit, the responsible light source has been obscured.  The compositions are also botanically impossible, bringing together flowers and leaves which could not, naturally, cohabit on the same branch.  But for all this artifice, the images register as credible.  To feel real counts for more than actually being so.


Although she has played around with shadow boxes, she has said that the photographic images that resulted from these experiments were staid in comparison with the mesmerizing compositions she comes up with from imagination.  She realised that she would have to continue to construct her compositions formally, painstaking though this process is.  Her approach is traditional, scaling up her big canvases from resolved sketches.  There is, nonetheless, and despite the supreme painterliness of these images, a kind of photographic quality.  Or maybe not so much quality as aura.  Her images have the authority of a moment of moving film.  The sensation - fleeting but particular, elusive but gripping - stretches the space between projection and memory. 


* quoted from E.H.Gombrich Shadows: The Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art, (London: National Gallery, 1995).  


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