How to Save Memory for the Future

Remarks on the paintings of Isca Greenfield-Sanders

By Bernd Klüser

From a distance, Isca Greenfield-Sanders’ paintings look like blow-ups of hand-tinted photographs of bourgeois family idylls dating from the 1950s.

That first glance is deceptive: the surface of these works has been done in oils, and the cliché of an idyll which they show has been manipulated – a mixture of document and virtual reality.

At a household auction five years ago the artist bought some metal boxes of the kind formerly used to store slides. To her surprise, the boxes were full of holiday and casual photographs of the members of a large American family. Her first reaction was to try and return the photographs to the seller, as she was only interested in the metal boxes. He congratulated her on the purchase of the metal containers and recommended that she throw away their contents as he was not acquainted with the former owners of the house.

This chance find then inspired Isca Greenfield-Sanders to base her paintings on these photographs: “I decided to adopt these orphans.” A rational decision which psychoanalytical critics in the future might interpret both speculatively and exaggeratedly as a kind of self-exploration or unconscious search for the archetypes of her own childhood.

What is certain, however, is that the artist was delighted to have found raw material to work with for a considerable period of time in this passive store of images – and in our society’s most popular pictorial genre.

Her acknowledgement of an ideology-free pictorial content places her in the good company of great artists from the history of art. The motif of her picnic-paintings first cropped up in Giorgione’s Concert Champêtre (1519), and since Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe, at the latest, it has become embedded in our general consciousness. Cézanne pursued that motif further in series of paintings, adding numerous “Bathers”, a subject that would preoccupy generations of major artists (from Matisse, Picasso, Bonnard and Kirchner to Henry Moore, Alberto Giacometti and Jasper Johns, who did studies after Cézanne’s Bathers).

Currently, the work of Gerhard Richter provides contemporary examples of largely “neutral” painterly themes based on photographs. Richter has been alternating between different banal motifs (and painting styles) in his works for decades. His models are family and landscape photographs, as well as illustrations from encyclopaedias and enlargements of photographs of the surface structures of his own abstract paintings.

Isca Greenfield-Sanders is not only aware of this art historical context, she also attributes importance to it. Lisa Dennison, head curator at the Guggenheim Museum (which already purchased a large painting by the artist in 2002) has pointed this out: “Many artists work with reproductive media and digitally-manipulated photographs, but she takes this in another direction by alluding to art history.”

Technically, the artistic transformation process in Isca Greenfield-Sanders’ works, from the model to the finished painting, is highly complex. First she scans up to six selected photographs into her computer and then digitally processes various elements thereby modifying the theme. She prints the results on rice paper, which she subsequently reworks with paint. A new condensed image thus emerges in which people or elements of a landscape are amplified or eliminated, in compliance with the artist’s compositional idea. Painterly corrections have to be made in order to adapt, for example, the shadows of newly-introduced people to the light conditions prevailing in the image.

This new basic image is again scanned into the computer and enlargements printed out on square sheets of rice paper each measuring 17.5 x 17.5 cm. The individual sheets are then pasted onto canvas in grid form, making up the final pictorial model.

This is where the actual creative painting work begins, the second transformation. The photographic image is painted over in oils, giving rise to more deviations from the original model due to changing colours and densities.

The artistic process of transforming content into form and allowing that transformation to become legible equates in Isca Greenfield-Sanders’ work to drawing and painting of the first order: from the calculated imperfections in Mondrian and Malevich to the visible traces of underpaintings and first drafts in Rothko and Scully to Pollock’s “drippings”, Warhol’s silk-screen printing structures, the blurs in Richter and the traces of the eraser in Alberto Giacometti’s drawings.

What at first sight looks like realist-painterly virtuosity turns out on closer inspection of her works to be a well-considered engagement with pictorial reality and painting – an attempt to give painting a function, which it is now usually denied. These are pictorial inventions which respond to the flood of images in our era of the new media, while at the same time referring to pictorial inventions in the history of painting.

The dominant colours are blue, green and turquoise, which, by comparison with the photographic models, are clearly intensified. This results in a specific light, the impact of which is quite irritating. On first perceiving the motifs, viewers expect faded shades, as would be typical of colour photographs from the 1950s. Instead, they are confronted with a light familiar to them from contemporary TV sets, computer monitors or light boxes: transcendent, as if lit from within, similar to the effect of stained glass windows in churches. A slight blurredness resulting from the painting technique increases the irritation, forcing one to take a closer look.
Isca Greenfield-Sanders’ works are painterly explorations of seeing, something which Cézanne had in mind in his conversation with Gasquet: “All that we see is dispersed, is transient, is it not? Nature is always the same, but nothing remains of what we see of her. It’s for our art to give the feeling of her endurance, with the ingredients, the appearance of all her changes.”

According to Cézanne, the transience of life can only assume permanence through form, and it makes all the difference whether the after-images of a memory are brought to mind by photographs or are represented in painting. Painting enlarges the distance between photography and reality, and saves memory for the future. Or to quote Alex Katz: “Photography is always the past, painting always the present.”

© Copyright 1999-2017 by Isca Greenfield-Sanders.