Isca Greenfield-Sanders: Grids

by Nuit Banai

In carefully crafted scenes of family idylls, Isca Greenfield-Sanders evokes a nostalgia-saturated world of picnics on freshly cut grass, crystal waters of backyard pools and afternoons on sun-drenched beaches This is a world of eternal beauty where boys and girls in colorful bathing suits frolic without care and light and shadow gently play on the rippling surface of perfectly calibrated waves. Collected from the personal archives of family estates, these images capture the hazy memory of a perfect moment in time. In that instant, they reassure us that life has always been this good. All we need to do is resign ourselves to dreaming.

Yet, surfacing within this apparent tranquility is the modernist myth of the grid, a cognitive structure that creates and constructs a bold interplay of serendipitous contradictions. The grid’s singularity is that it allows contradictions to maintain themselves within the consciousness of modernism. Through its mediation, values and physical qualities that are normally in conflict coexist. A hybrid between photography and painting, Greenfield-Sanders’ work is a compelling breed of luminosity and opaqueness, abstraction and figuration, mechanical reproduction and hand made craft, narrative impulse and pure visuality. These contradictions are kept perpetually in play by the grids’ relentless reappearance as the armature of each of Greenfield-Sander’s paintings. Using a highly mediated, time-intensive process, the grid is not simply a surface component, but is embedded as the very surface of her painting.

With the grid as a foundational matrix, Greenfield-Sanders’ work announces itself at the limit of both painting and photography. This doubling is connected to the process of transformation and elaboration of the image. Greenfield-Sanders starts with a vintage slide, which is printed out as a photograph onto rice paper. Using gouache, colored pencils, and watercolors, this print is painted, pairing down the photographic image to a form of painterly abstraction. After scanning and enlarging this new study, it is printed onto tiles of rice paper, which are laid out on the surface of the canvas, in the form of a grid. Finally, the rice paper is sealed with varnish and the surface is painted with transparent oils. Through this process, the photographic image, which has gone through intense transformation, retains its underlying structure while becoming a new type of mixed medium. “I like to make a composition that pushes photography into the realm of painting,” says Greenfield-Sanders, “I love the idea that you can find an amateur snapshot that someone has discarded and make it into a monumental painting.”

On another level, the grid stakes out the painting as both visually autonomous and connected to a basic compositional narrative. In the same instance, the grid acts like a geometricized, flattened, ordered fortress, which turns its back on the natural world and a continuous surface that extends outwards towards the contingency of that world. Thus, each tile in the grid can be read as a separate statement, an independent variable within the larger whole. In this light, the figures start to fragment into discrete and arbitrary dabs of paint, lines and contours that inhabit the space of the canvas and that cohere, as if by chance, into distinct subjects. In this random order, the eye is lured into pure visual delectation, lingering on a spot of red or a dab of yellow, hanging onto a splash of green or a touch of blue. Greenfield Sanders explains, “By presenting the image as a grid of tiles, I am showing you the small abstract color field paintings within the larger figurative work.” Yet by virtue of the grid, every mark on the canvas becomes a re-presentation of everything that separates the work of art from the world. The strong centripetal motion imposes boundaries that emphasize the painting’s autonomous visuality.

At the same time, however, the narrative pull of the paintings is inescapable. Each painting extends outward in all directions to infinity and suggests that a story exists for each figure, a character that somehow found his or her way onto the canvas at that particular moment. We can imagine the suburban narratives that propel each painting and the intimate habits of its inhabitants. Moreover, each painting becomes emblematic of our own lives and longings, wistful portraits of memories lost and found again. The ‘beyond the frame’ attitude of Greenfield Sanders’ work connects it to actual embodied subjects who live and breath and construct themselves in the form of narrative. This centrifugal motion is emphasized by Greenfield-Sanders’ embrace of the framing edge. If you look carefully, you’ll see that the paint extends beyond the grid, suggesting its infinite expansion beyond the outer margins of the work.

As the grid mediates between both centrifugal and centripetal motion, it also reconciles the technological with the hand made. The mechanical reproduction at the crux of the work’s inception instills a type of auratic standardization of each painting. The intrusion of technology into the processes of painting has the potential to eradicate the status of the one-of-a-kind, unique work of art. Each photographic image has the potential to be infinitely reproduced, always the same. Yet, Greenfield-Sanders maintains the auratic quality of the singular by her painstaking painterly procedure. She short circuits the latent homogeneity and uniformity of the mechanical by maintaining the presence of the hand made. You can observe the distinctive cadence of the pigment’s application on the surface of each canvas – idiosyncratic swirls of the brush within the oils. Moreover, as if to emphasize the value of the authentic, Greenfield-Sanders will sometimes alter the placement of tiles so that they appear upside down or out of sequence. In this way, she introduces the improbable effects of random order within the technological system of the rationalized grid.

The curious paradoxes in Greenfield-Sanders work are generated and contained by the power of the grid. With its self-imposed order, the grid generates a set of rules that act as the logical precondition for each painting. It is then up to Greenfield-Sanders to work within these constraints by productively manipulating them, by testing their limits. Moreover, the grid organizes the surface experience of each hybrid object so that it is at once something complete and internally coherent, an materially bound object of vision, and completely dematerialized, a sensorial carapace of luminous transcendence. As we linger on each painting, a window to a perfect world, we become intertwined with a cognitive structure that simultaneously invokes certainty and ambiguity. To engage with a work by Greenfield Sanders is to feel the ground firmly under one’s feet, while simultaneously slipping into an affective zone of irrational desire. As the logic of modernism reproduces itself in the grid, we also become uncannily aware that we are in the presence of its repressed other.

© Copyright 1999-2017 by Isca Greenfield-Sanders.