In the Air
by Trinie Dalton
“It’s hard to make a painting right now without thinking of war,” Isca Greenfield-Sanders says of her painting series, Against the Fall. Employing her signature manipulation of vintage images, these new works depict single parachutists floating through the air or men huddled in groups learning to be paratroopers. Based on two sets of military parachuting slides circa 1942 and 1962, the paintings point to the wars of those decades—WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. The show’s title is taken from the direct translation of the French word parachute. PARA (Against) and CHUTE (the Fall) connotes an artistic resistance to political ruin. Leavened by the artist’s formal interest in interpolating photography through painting, Greenfield-Sanders’ “parachute paintings” urge the viewer to acknowledge current politics through subject matter.
Recent American survey exhibitions have sought to examine an artistic move away from a display of materialistic excess and self-concern in favor of art that questions social responsibility and activism during crisis periods. Of this renewed socio-political concern amongst young artists, critic Peter Schjeldahl writes that,
Something is happening in artists’ studios: a shift of emphasis, from surface to depth, and a shift of mood, from mania to melancholy, shrugging off the allures of the money-hypnotized market …the futility of artistic technique in the face of world conditions may constitute a subject for art as substantial as any other, and rather more compelling than today’s stacked-deck models of success. [i]
Greenfield-Sanders’ new paintings avoid preachy anti-war sentiment. She carefully underscores her disinterest in overtly didactic political art by electing to portray soldiers adrift in abstracted atmospherics that exude more mood than anecdote. In her large-scale piece, Black & White Parachute (Black), a silhouetted figure cascades downward through a black night sky, tied to a black-and-white striped chute with a hole that is either a function of design or a deadly tear. Made with one tube of Mars Black oil paint thinned to various opacities, the painting’s monochrome is ominous yet encapsulates a sense of calm isolation. Her Parachute Class suite, in which seven men pull a single parachute against the wind, was compositionally inspired by Goya’s The Third of May, 1808, and Eduoard Manet’s work, The Execution of Emperor Maximilian. In these two paintings, men in firing lines face away from the viewer as they assassinate their victims against a wall. Greenfield-Sanders’ paintings substitute parachutes for firing lines, eradicating the obvious implications of violence in favor of a more ambivalent scene, though one that could also serve as a staging ground for nefarious purposes. In each of her works, the figures have a faceless lack of identity and are discreetly removed from direct military symbolism.
Clues to Greenfield-Sanders’ subtle political subtext range from the dates of the source images, to visual motifs such as backpack style or the red-and-white striped parachutes indicative of Korean War era design, as in Red & White Parachute (Pink). There are several line drawings of jumpers in homage to Antoine de St. Exupéry’s novella, Le Petit Prince. Though one can view these works as narrative pictures, there is an ambiguity that points to Greenfield-Sanders’ real effort: a dissection of imagery and gathering of disparate references to invite metaphoric reinterpretation. Her choice of subject matter is not tied to illustrating America’s history, but rather to her desire to elucidate myriad ways in which one can view a selected image.
Greenfield-Sanders’ systematic approach to painting points to her belief in the Warholian notion that an image doesn’t have a finite end. A stringent editing of archival photographs, followed by several technically rigorous, deconstructive manipulations of the photos results in works whose similarities demand the viewer notice minute variation. The entire Against the Fall series riffs on six slides depicting men falling from the sky with open parachutes and three slides depicting jumpers in training, struggling with an open chute on a grassy field. It is astonishing to note, with regard to scale, that the parachute jumpers in the original slides are smaller than grains of rice. Size, scale, and repetitive geometric patterning lend this work mathematical clarity. This is even evident in the titles, which visually resemble algebraic equations: Black Cloud Parachute (Black), Pink & Orange Parachute (Blue), Yellow Cloud Parachute (Pink). [ii]
The oil paintings in Against the Fall evolve from a multi-stage process in which each step yields a separate, distinct, work of art and also rolls cumulatively forward. Greenfield-Sanders begins with a scan of a vintage slide, which she digitally manipulates. The manipulated image is then printed 7 x 7 inches onto rice paper and transformed with watercolor, colored pencil, and ink. This mixed media watercolor is digitally enlarged and tiled onto the canvas in a grid before the artist completes the work in oil paint.
Variation is delicately finessed in this suite of roughly fifty studies and works on canvas. Compositionally, clouds are added or subtracted from each scene, while the parachutists maintain similar physical positions. In general, the artist’s palette, whose pink, blue, gold, and black is based in the CMYK digital spectrum, is most notably altered in her differentiation between sky colors and parachute stripes, as in Orange & White Parachute (Blue) versus Orange & White Parachute (Pink). But the variations that most succinctly demonstrate the reasoning behind Greenfield-Sander’s precision and procedure concern a vacillation between hard line and brushstroke, revealing the artist’s struggle to define painting against a photographic backdrop.
Greenfield-Sanders grew up in a house where photography and painting were integral to her life. Her father is the photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, and her grandfather is the abstract expressionist painter, Joop Sanders. And so, it is no wonder that Greenfield-Sanders’ elaborate art-making process is informed by a deep understanding of what happens when a photograph is destabilized as a “text,” and transformed into a painting. The content and the style of her paintings both embrace and fight against the way photography implies a moment preserved, and how, as Graham Clark writes, the medium,
…suggests a passive act of recognition, insisting that we read a photograph not as an image but as a text that involves a series of problematic, ambiguous, and often contradictory meanings and relationships between the reader and the image…in which an ideology both constructs meaning and reflects that meaning as a stamp of power and authority. [iii]
Greenfield-Sanders welcomes photography’s graphic, definitive quality while initially conceptualizing a work. She mines archives for “images to pull away from the photographs.” And by employing anonymous amateur photography she is able to eliminate potentially embedded texts that might appear in her own photos. Though categorization is inherent to the idea of an archive, which artist Alan Sekula calls “a territory of images whose unity is first and foremost that imposed by ownership,” [iv] many artists, including Greenfield-Sanders, view this previously owned territory not as restrictive but as a liberating site where imagery can be freely detached from its original context. To Gerhard Richter, who has devoted his career to transforming photography into painting, this archival editing process intuitively leads the artist to the ‘right’ image:
This is basically an unconscious procedure...All the photos were sitting there for ages, to be looked at again and again, and then you just start somewhere, and the choice of photos that could be painted get smaller and smaller. [v]
Greenfield-Sanders’ affinity for photos shot between 1940 and the late 1960s has to do with the visual simplicity and directness that infuses vernacular photography from this time. In addition, the presence of logos, billboards, and “visual garbage” that clutters photographs from later decades is largely absent in this period. Her past painting series have included images of people cavorting in beach surf, as in Sky of Blue, Sea of Green, to children playing in a red tugboat and lying, face down, on towels in the sand for Red Boat Beaches. Her artistic lens, so to speak, focuses on humans interacting with objects in natural landscapes. For Against the Fall, the artist mentions how “parachutes have been as gratifying to paint as beach towels,” reiterating her adoption of subject matter that, regardless of its symbolic content, offers technical painting challenges.
For example, in Against the Fall, Greenfield-Sanders took inspiration from Goya’s emotionally dark Black Paintings to make two large canvasses and several smaller ones with pure black. Mentioned earlier, Black & White Parachute (Black) and Black & White Cloud Parachute (Black) are the least photographic paintings in the show. Experiments with texture, brush size, opacity, shadow, and line reveal paint application that speaks to “time and light, and the timelessness of desire”—meaning, as the artist explains, the desire verging on obsession painters have to create works that function outside of time but are still relevant to painting’s historical lineage.
Greenfield-Sanders used gold leaf and metallic gold acrylic paint in works such as Yellow & Black Parachute (Gold) and Pink & Gold Parachute (Gold). Combining the artist’s interest in Byzantine art with inspiration found in the term “Golden Parachute” (referring to financial packages associated with corporate buy-outs) these gold paintings perhaps most perfectly represent the artist’s fondness for marrying the ancient to the modern through a wide array of textual and imagistic references.
This search for connection between mediums and centuries makes Isca Greenfield-Sanders’ work modern, yet oddly reminiscent of paintings made before photography. Figurative painting in the 21st century, of course, must acknowledge Clarke’s notion of “the efficacy of the photograph just at the point when we have become saturated with its presence...and when more photographs are being taken than ever before.” [vi] Greenfield-Sanders’ approach to this conundrum masterfully incorporates the photo in order to ultimately obliterate it.
-New York City, August 2008
i. P. 74, “Feeling Blue,” Peter Schjeldahl, New Yorker, Aug.4, 2008.
ii. Each painting’s size is determined by iterations of 7, the largest works are 63 x 63 inches and the smallest are 7 x 7 inches.
iii. P. 27-28, Graham Clarke, The Photograph, Oxford University Press, 1997.
iv. P. 217, Allan Sekula from “Reading an Archive, Photography Between Labour and Capital, 1983, Art and Photography, Phaidon, 2003.
v. P. 269, “Gerhard Richter Interviewed by Jan Thorn Prikker, 1977,” Art and Photography, Phaidon, 2003.
vi. P. 220, Graham Clarke, The Photograph, Oxford University Press, 1997.