Keep Them Still


The first impression of Isca Greenfield-Sanders’ paintings is one of simple, intense visual pleasure, which is made deeper by the emotional accessibility of the scenes. A spare monochrome exquisiteness, lit by sudden flares of a single bright color (a dark red bathing suit on a pale green sand dune, a pink hat against a harmony of blue sky, sea blues, and bright composite whites) is her signature style. The aerated elegance of her surfaces may recall Milton Avery; her concentration on the single, plaintive isolated figure may recall Edward Hopper.

Hers is an austere figurative style, sweetly touched by nostalgia and by longing. We recognize the bright light of an unspecified beach, somewhere in Maine or in a (then) unspoiled Bridgehampton or Cape Cod. It is a 1962 world still pre–logo and not so much prelapsarian as pre-lapse—before the errors of mass branding. The girls in their bathing caps and old-fashioned, undaring one-pieces seem more like creatures born out of a Lands’ End catalogue and national memory than people from any one place. A particular kind of American pleasure, a particular kind of American leisure, and, if you insist, a particular kind of American privilege are gently inspected here: men, women, dogs, and children walking and wading on improbably pristine shores. They touch us at a very deep level: The exquisitely minimal and elegant pictures show us the summer we thought we’d had but probably never did—old shots at happiness long gone wide.

But at the same time, anyone with a marginally sensitive eye for the language of painting realizes that there is something not disquieting but disarming about her art. The longer you look, the more premeditated it seems. You absorb this truth exactly as you should absorb a language of art—not through a set of overt signals but through a system of clandestine clues. It’s there in the way the pictures are tellingly divided into neat grids, in the austere and highly stylized reductions of color, in the epigrammatic severity of form. We sense at second sight that we are in the presence of experience that has in some way passed through a prism of purpose.

We see, somehow, that the principles of American pleasure have been interrogated rather than simply memorialized. One senses in her painting something not “unsettling” in the normal sense (as Eric Fischl, for example, filled his early beach and barbecue scenes with the neurotic underpinnings of American pleasure) but more intellectual, what used to be called “conceptual.” Her art feels closer to Georges Seurat than it does to summer snapshots, with rigor organizing pleasure. The experience is not so much of something timeless or something eternal, as of something rooted in a specific time, but a time that we cannot quite locate and a beach we cannot quite visit—something stilled that challenges our imagination and moves us by its immobility. Her work feels less timeless than timed: snapshots of a world we once knew and have now lost. The emotion provided is less nostalgic than dream-like, since dreams often strike us as involving memories of events that we somehow don’t quite recall. (“How did we get back into the old house?” we ask in dreams, even as the events unfold.) Then we go back to appreciating the beautiful surface, only to return to the order beneath in a cycle of contradiction that we rightly call the special experience of visual art.

If you interrogate Greenfield-Sanders about her working method, you learn that the effect is the consequence of very knowing, shrewd, and sly strategies on her part. The result is an effect of method more than of luck. The cycle we see is a cycle of purpose implanted. From thousands of vintage color slides, rescued from the basements of old houses, she fishes and sieves for imagery. Her reservoir of imagery is the heyday of American Kodachrome in the 1950s and 1960s, imagery saved from the lost world of the family slideshow—the bright white eye of the projector, the hissing of its fan, and the drop-and-click advance sounds of the carousel. It is a world that Paul Simon hymned, just as it was ending, in his song “Kodachrome”: “They give us those nice bright colors. They give us the greens of summers. Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day.”

From those vintage slides, she carefully extracts—not roughly, as with scissors, but with infinite care, as with tweezers—specific images, poses, and scenes, all of the people and poses that we see. She then turns these choices into squares of water- color painted on rice paper, which in turn become the gridded basis for the finished oils. So what we see is not merely twice distilled, but thrice distilled—first from the exhaustive scrutiny of “found” photographic imagery, then from the distillation of that reservoir of imagery into specific figures and scenes, and finally through the last transformation from watercolor to full oil painting.

In the end, painting always moves us by taking an effect that is available only to vision—one that isn’t conceptual at all but that somehow implicates itself in an intellectual act by its very form. Seurat’s dots resonate not because they actually short-circuit the optic nerve and “combine” complementary colors into some third hue, but because they provide a consistent visual metaphor for the power of anal- ysis—they become scientific not because they blend in our eyes but because they symbolize the mind’s own process of division.

In the same spirit, Greenfield-Sanders doesn’t pedantically preach on the weight of the “mediated” image on our minds, critique the conspiracy of pleasure in American visual culture, or in any sense satirize the way that we create an imagery with which we enslave ourselves—the slides of the family holiday that never actually took place. Instead, her art critiques our experience by exemplifying it, by analyzing it, by taking a microscope to its nature. These are the emotional qualities that make her work so remarkable. The echoing space between pleasure and the analysis of plea- sure have their own drama in the process by which she makes her art.
Greenfield-Sanders is the daughter and granddaughter of painters and photographers, some of them very well known. She grew up in a privileged place in the positive sense—she knows the way art gets made and has a witty sense of how it works.

So her work seems to belong less to the recent, unembarrassed revival of figurative painting open to an imagery of pleasure and personality, as with Elizabeth Peyton or, in a more eccentric way, John Currin. (Though surely her work has its analogies there.) Instead, a candid inspection of her work (and a candid conversation with the artist) reminds us that she should more rightly be placed in the second generation (or is it the third?) of what were once called “media artists”—those who take as their subject the ways that the previous packaging of experience affects our own immediate appreciation of it. So, we think of Doug and Mike Starn, the Starn twins, favorites of hers, who also use borrowed imagery and rectilinear collage, not to declare the incapacity of art to compete with media, but rather to insist that it is only through the wise acknowledgement of the previous arbitration of our experience by things we have already seen that we can arrive at an honest image of our inner selves. We are the slides we rescue and transform.

Then there’s an even more powerful sense that behind that particular contradictory dialogue (between the assertion of pleasure and its analysis, between the warmly remembered moments of ordinary leisure and the cool emotion of noting them down, between casual observation and serial exactitude, between pleasure sought and system found) is a deeply American apprehension. It is the central form of the artist who she cites often as a hero, Winslow Homer, whose skating and sailing scenes of the 1870s, particularly in their woodcut realizations—in his case oil painting turning into reproduced imagery, instead of the other way around—are the bedrock of Greenfield-Sanders’ particular channel of American sensibility. From something “sporting,” we arrive at something stilled; from the old collective memory of pleasure we move toward an art of chaste rectitude; from the muddle of seashores and swim- suits, an art of enigmatic solitudes.

The more we look at her art, the less simple the pleasure that it offers becomes, and the more complicated the pleasure that it provides. And, as first-rate painting should, her artwork opens new doors onto experience it has not yet embraced. The Kodachrome labs that her reservoir of old slides depends on closed for good in 2009. When we think of this, we realize that we, too, sit on an even larger reservoir of improvised imagery, there on our iPhones and other electronic devices. One day soon, these will be as “period” in feeling and finish as the old slides with which Greenfield-Sanders begins. Old images of the lost search for pleasure are always in need of salvage and— can we say it?—they can only be truly made sacred by the hand of art.

Adam Gopnik is an American writer and essayist. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker. Since 1986, he has contributed nonfiction, fiction, memoir, and criticism to the magazine, and he was its art critic from 1987 to 1995. He co-curated with Kirk Varnedoe the exhibition High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and is the author of many exhibition essays, including essays for retrospectives of Wayne Thiebaud and Richard Avedon.