Wednesday, May 22, 2013

All Women in the Act of Painting all the time: Elena Sisto

Elena Sisto "Painting with Music" 2011

I absolutely love the work of contemporary painter Elena Sisto. Maybe I can't explain exactly why, but just looking at her work lifts my spirits, even when the images are more neutral than aggressively cheerful.  I suspect it is because Sisto is painting the essence of a core self with which I strongly identify, a woman at work in the studio. Her figures of young women artists seem particular enough to be interesting yet they are emblematic at the same time. I have no trouble at all projecting my own (older) self into the emotional landscapes that these young women inhabit. Sisto (b. 1952) seems similarly untroubled as many of these paintings of young women are titled as self-portraits. She may be literally looking back at her youthful self but I suspect she is at least simultaneously expressing the ageless spirit we all feel within us.

Elena Sisto "Green Brush"  2011
Elena Sisto "Painting at Midnight" 2011

I also obviously share in Sisto's passion for depicting women in the very act of painting. I don't know of another living artist who is as completely obsessed with this theme as is Sisto (and myself, trailing humbly and admiringly behind.) The theme of woman at work making art is at once self-referential, universal, didactive and instructive. Sisto seems to feel the need to create and re-create the creative process, continually as a mode of self-understanding and aesthetic  transmission. Her work reminds me of the lines from the Roethke poem, The WakingI learn by going where I have to go.We think by feeling. What is there to know?

Elena Sisto "Upside Down" 2011

These images are all recent works, most from Sisto's current show at Lori Bookstein, Between Silver Light and Orange Shadow, April 25-May 25, 2013. In a beautiful, thoughtful, review of this show on the Art Critical website Dennis Kardon writes, "In what could be called the Bildungsmalen genre of painting, it is unique to see a female painter as protagonist. But aside from this feminist act of rectification, what makes these paintings unprecedented is that Sisto constructs a gaze for us that somehow becomes parental."  

Elena Sisto "Self-Portrait (with Red Figure)"  2011

Two thoughts on these particular observations. First, as can be seen just from the many hundreds of images of women in the act of painting in this WAP project alone, the idea of woman as a developing protagonist (the bildunsmalen) is far from unique, either cross-culturally or throughout history, it is simply not well-known. Without taking even one minute to ponder or research, women visual  artists using self as a theme of development in their own work such as Sophonisba Anguissola and Artemisia Gentileschi spring to mind, followed by Frida Kahlo and Lotte Laserstein, along with contemporary artists including Mary Beth McKenzie, Margaret McCann, Julie Heffernan and Sarah McEneaney. However, Sisto is definitely taking the theme of women in the act of painting and running far far far away with it. I can't wait to see where she goes next. (And I hope she will send me a postcard.) Second, I definitely feel the nurturing/accepting theme of these works that Kardon reads as parental, but I read the emotion a little differently, as a form of universal acceptance and encouragement that embraces all beings, including of course, the self.  (Even one's younger self, as Kardon does also point out.)

Elena Sisto "Waiting for an Idea"  2011

Sisto (b. 1952) received a dual degree from Brown University and RISDE, and also studied at the NewYork Studio School. She has had nineteen one-person shows, and has received numerous grants, prizes and fellowships including two NEA grants, a Yaddo Fellowship and most recently, the 2013 Guggenheim Fellowship, among many many other honors and awards. She is represented by Lori Bookstein Fine Art in New York City. The artist's website can be seen here.

Elena Sisto "8th Street"  2012 
~Many thanks to Molly Bolger Jenssen for alerting me to Sisto's current show!

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