In Sarah Emerson’s “Underland,” at Whitespace, the woods are lovely, dark and deep
By Jerry Cullum
The “Sea of Trees” named in the titles of some of the works in Sarah Emerson’s suite of paintings “Underland,” at Whitespace gallery through May 12, is the archetypal kind of forest that Europeans and Americans know well: a deeply fearsome place of the imagination. It stretches from the “dark wood” from which Dante Alighieri could escape only by way of a trip to Hell in “The Divine Comedy” to the bosky, Freud-inflected precincts of “Into the Woods,” Stephen Sondheim’s musical mash-up of multiple fairy tales.
But Emerson’s labyrinthine portrayals of ribbon-bedecked trees with skulls beneath them have a much closer kinship with the landscape that Robert Frost found “lovely, dark, and deep” in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Many of us were taught as high schoolers that the poem’s protagonist refuses the temptation of disappearing into the woods, choosing rather to fulfill his “promises to keep.”
That also turns out to be exactly the case with the woods to which the paintings of “Underland” obliquely allude. The artist’s statement doesn’t reveal the name or location when it states that these paintings are based on an actual place, but the site is Aokigahara, Japan’s “suicide forest.” Photographs viewable online reveal striking visual parallels between Emerson’s uncanny imaginative world and this real-life dark wood in which hundreds of people have chosen to wander lost, with the intention of ending their lives. The brightly colored ribbons on the actual forest’s trees are latter-day Ariadne’s threads for the search parties that regularly set forth in hope of rescuing or recovering the bodies of the many who have gone into the woods on a suicide mission.
This background information lends a dimension of shock to “Underland” that is less immediately present in the work itself. The paintings possess an overall similarity intended to create an encompassing environment of disorientation: surrounded by them as by a fragmented panorama, we ourselves are meant to enter into the woods of death and desperation, a space interspersed with reminders of the hope of rescue.
This is a powerfully archetypal metaphor, but it is also one of the most domesticated themes in the art and literature of Western civilization. The pleasingly unsettled sensation of being immersed in these painted woods is a little like a highbrow version of the comforting genre expectations of the horror movie (about which Emerson has also produced a body of work, her “Last Girl” series of drawings). When we learn, however, that the dark wood is real and exists at the foot of the holy slopes of Mount Fuji, it is as though our cinematic and psychological nightmares have suddenly come to life.
Perhaps Emerson should have done more with this, instead of burying the information coyly in an allusion interpretable only through a Web search based on hints from the gallery staff. As it is, “Underland” has depths that function on a purely aesthetic level: the visual paradox of cheerfully bright bands of nursery colors appearing amid markers of horror neutralized by cartoon-like rendering. This encourages us to explain the scene by making up our own versions of familiar stories of failed quests, of beasts and sacrificial victims, of hunting parties lost in the great American forests, or what have you. These tales, too, are comforting by virtue of long repetition.
There is a case to be made for keeping interpretation open. But there are also times when the literal truth is more bizarre and frightening than any made-up story we could imagine. The reality of Aokigahara is the ultimate confirmation, perversely reversed, of the old song’s saccharine assurance that “fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you.”
Of course, the tales’ original audiences, for whom actual wolves and dark forests were everyday realities, already knew the relationship between archetypes and genuine existential threats. We, for whom fantasy is more often a means of escape from reality than a confrontation with it, may need a refresher course.
Published: Sept 25, 2009
By Catherine Fox
Sarah Emerson’s paintings are dense compositions in confectionery colors. Jeff Grant’s sculptures and drawings are crisp and minimal.
Yet, their work at Whitespace gallery ends up in a similar place: the world gone awry.
Emerson’s landscapes are at once Edenic and disturbing. The Atlanta artist clothes careful descriptions of flowers and fauns in the sugary sweetness of Disney cartoons and the obvious artifice of paint by numbers. She drives her point home by seeding them rhinestones, the epitome of ersatz.
Distortions of scale and strange perspectives add to the discombobulation. “Swarm,” the most overtly creepy piece, gives the viewer the feeling of lying on the ground nose-to-nose with a mash-up of giant locusts. A biblical plague, all pretty in pink. Emerson begins her show with a series of charcoal portraits of women killed off in horror films. The last piece, “Soft Trap,” is a paradisial view of nubile women cavorting by a waterfall. A happy ending? Well, what about the title? Emerson leaves you hanging. Intentionally.
Grant fuses elegance and dread in his wall and floor pieces. My favorite is a sculpture titled “Withershins,” which means “in the direction that is contrary to the natural course.” A bulb in a metal shade dangles from the ceiling on a long cord so that it hovers inches from the floor. The concentrated light seeps beyond the rim, eerily, like a UFO. It illuminates barely visible miniature animal figures beneath it, whiom the light fixture is, or so it seems, about to squash.
Atlanta Holmes & Lifestyles
By Jackson Reeves
Painter Sarah Emerson and multimedia artist Jeff Grant partner to create a familiar yet obscure landscape in “Soft Trap,” an exhibit at Whitespace. Emerson’s new work focuses on an idealized yet grim Eden of the future while Grant’s highlights the interaction of urban development and natural decay in ink drawings, wood sculptures and light installations.
By Felicia Feaster
Sarah Emerson’s paintings come off soft and sweet before they hit you with a wallop of dread and despair. The artist hits so many gorgeously discordant notes of pleasure and fear in the same canvas that you feel intellectually unbalanced and woozy in the best way possible. The anxiety that has always characterized Emerson’s sugar-pretty paintings has only intensified in her latest exhibition Soft Trap, a meditation on nature and death executed in soft avocadoes, toilet-bowl-cleaner blues, dusty buttercreams—the color scheme of nurseries and the Martha Stewart empire [Whitespace Gallery; September 4—October 10, 2009]. Emerson wields that creamy, butter-mint color palette with authority. As the work takes us for a trip down the rabbit hole, her palette gives way to intense neon color jolts that intoxicate and seduce. While artists like Jeff Koons might work a degree of winking snark into such juxtapositions of Bambi der with bloody mouths, Emerson’s ambitions are clearly more poetic and dire, infused with an utterly unique sensibility that feels girl-invested without being precious, tender without being maudlin.
Emerson merges conceptual rigor with ecstatic investment in the world she pictures. The paintings depict a natural world where blood and hunger compromise the otherwise lovely “future Eden” she envisions. Grasshoppers feast with blood-smeared mouths. A doe and buck graze in a glade of skeletons, and the air of delight has an undercurrent of horror. The sylvan rapture in glades and forest nooks can feel as emotionally set-designed as a Disney film or the frozen fantasias of paint-by-numbers. Soft Trap, 2009 an acrylic and rhinestones on canvas, typifies Emerson’s queasy blend of magic and mayhem, as art nouveau-meets-Henry Darger sylphs, lounge on tree branches over a tranquil pool. Bright candy-fruit drop into the water, creating fat pools of color. And on the banks, a skull—one of Emerson’s ever-present memento mori—bears silent witness, tainting the paradisiacal splendor. Icky Lush, 2009, is a typical blend of sweetness and head-trip in which a dear—standing in for our own point of view—gazes out over a lake that drips like an infinity pool into the pitch-black cosmos beyond. Enormous ringed planets and a hulking gray moon lurk in the distance, suggesting some out-of-order universe colliding with our own. A cartoonish explosion on the moon—a dramatic smack!—may explain the harvest of radiated-looking plants in gaudy Magic Rock shades in the foreground. This crazed, neon-bright bounty is just one indication of Emerson’s environmental agenda, to warn of a natural world threatened with devastation.
One of Emerson’s most arresting, evocative, and conceptual touches is the application of tiny plastic jewels on her paintings: a small pink gem on a flower petal or clear sparkle on a blade of grass lends the work a magical, charmed sensibility. In the fat-individual smears of color that evoke paint-by-numbers, Emerson again reveals her hand in purposefully manufacturing this false paradise. Time and again, her way with technique and content affirms a cleverly executed intellectual enterprise.
Emerson has tried a new tack in The Final Girl, 2009, a series of charcoal on vellum drawings arranged on one gallery wall in unique frames like family portraits. The drawings, whose execution ranges from purposefully crude to artful, represent a variety of horror movie heroines, including Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby and Sissy Spacek from Brian de Palma’s Carrie. The girls are both traumatized and exploratory. The jumping off point for the drawings is Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, a 1992 academic text in which Carol Clover argues that slasher films are often defined by the triumphal point of view of a virginal “final girl” who manages to outwit the killer and survive. Edged with darkness, the work suggests a feminine take on the heavy-metal fabulism of Banks Violette or a hardened twist on female will with echoes of Elizabeth Peyton. Though Emerson’s artist statement can stretch a connection between The Final Girl and Soft Trap, these works are best seen as stand-alone affirmations of her ongoing whip-smart, gender-infused exploration of innocence corrupted.
The Radar Art: Four Score!
By Felicia Feaster
Four Score! A quartet of Atlanta’s best artists: They’re here. They’re cool. Get used to it
Though New York and Los Angeles siphon off many of Atlanta’s bright young things, we can still lay claim to a shocking amount of artistic mojo. More and more creatives are choosing to live and work in Atlanta, either native Southerners or transplants relocating with intent who’ve gotten wise to the plentiful studio space and affordable rent that make the city a relative bargain compared to other, “hotter” art markets. Here are just a few of the bright stars you’ll want to watch for on the art horizon.
IN A NUTSHELL: With her baby-doll colors of dusty pink and robin’s egg blue and seductive, stained-glass skies, Emerson’s Virgin Suicides world of innocence shattered and soft, cuddly things sucks you in like a sticky trap. But it’s her smart subtext centered on the fragility of the natural world that makes you relish sweet surrender. Transporting viewers to a land of candy-coated make-believe quicker than any hallucinogen, Emerson’s gorgeous canvases encrusted with glitter, rhinestones and dripping pastel shades tap into a deep girly vibe. Emerson’s horses, bunnies and fawns stare out at the viewer with an intensity that locks us into her paintings’ emotional space. Like the furry animals that populate Disney films and so often represent childhood innocence, Emerson’s fauna were inspired by her earliest painting memory. At age six her daddy painted a deer. “It completely changed my life.” The rest, they say, is history. PATH TO THE ATL: After graduating from the Atlanta College of Art, Emerson and artist husband Jesse Cregar tasted the bright lights of London and Manhattan. But she says Atlanta has been a welcome respite. “We wanted a nice life,” she says of her decision to return. BIG NEWS: Emerson’s enviable resume includes a graduate degree from Goldsmiths College whose big-time alum include Damien Hirst, Sam Taylor- Wood and Lucian Freud and a job hobnobbing with the likes of Paul McCarthy and Larry Clark at NYC’s Luhring Augustine Gallery. More recently, Emerson’s work has been featured in New American Paintings and Metropolitan Home. INFLUENCES: Picasso, Warhol, Sue Williams, Karen Kilimnik, Neo Rauch, “comic books with strong female leads that deal with lots of girlie issues: Artbabe and Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Stanley Kubrick (he’s so fantastic with color). “Also, I love John Steinbeck. When I am feeling a little lost in the studio I prefer to re-read something by him than anything new. He’s so descriptive and visual I find it hard not to be inspired. His understanding of the human condition and the romantic isolation of his main characters is really appealing to me.” NEXT UP: See Emerson’s work through July 26 at the Swan Coach House Gallery. Stay tuned for a solo show in 2009 at Whitespace Gallery (www.whitespace814.com).
From drawings to video portraits:
Whitespace & Marcia Wood offer a mix of artists