Stephanie Serpick: New York

Gray Matters Gallery

Tracee W. Robertson

Like anything new in life, anything we begin for the first time, our perception at its inception is limited to appearance and first impression and grows deeper and more informed as time progresses. We have always heard, “Things are not always what they seem,” or how they appear. For her debut in Dallas at Gray Matters Gallery, Chicago-based painter Stephanie Serpick introduces a new body of work which, she explains, holds as its subject the “perception of appearance.” The paintings on canvas and paper present gatherings of imagery from pop culture, literature, fantasy, botanical and medical illustrations and so on. Like many young artists working from such points of reference, Serpick creates a visual field of iconic relationships and invites us to decipher her code.

Stephanie Serpick, Retreat, 2003
Oil on canvas
16 x 15 inches

As Serpick’s subject matter, the perception (awareness and comprehension) of appearance (an outward show or pretense) leads us through a façade of imagery and meaning to the real show behind. In fact, the artist tantalizes us into studied reflection with rich, layered color, sometimes shadowy and sometimes dazzling. She entertains with unabashedly decorative lines and intrigues by presenting only fractions of words or letters, oddly placed imagery and barely perceptible narrative details. For example, Retreat is a small painting on canvas smothered in layer upon layer of shiny, dark burgundy oil paint. The surface reflects light like glass, yet beneath it are gloomy drips of paint and the texture of canvas. Unaware of this gleaming surface is the opaque orange silhouette of a bird, wings spread wide, landing in the lower left corner atop the murky scene behind. Throughout the crowlike shape, a design is cut as if using a stencil from Victorian wallpaper, lending a decorative and slightly romantic gesture to an otherwise ominous presence. Upon further inspection, one is drawn to a glow in the center of the work—a circle of slightly lighter paint in which faint, line-drawn figures appear to have been formed by scraping into a layer of darker paint beneath. The figures are moving hand-in-hand, as if playing the childhood game Ring Around the Rosy. Practically nose to canvas, one notices that all but one figure possess an animal head—something like an elephant, fox, or cat—and each character kicks up one leg as he or she dances around the circle. Although one cannot possibly discern smirks or sneers on their obscured features, Retreat feels more like a command from this group of images than a title.

Bird shapes are featured elsewhere in Serpick’s work, as are calligraphic flourishes, cascading flowers and strange line-drawn imagery. Both Truth Be Told and Red Felt contain myriad visual clues to the artist’s process and intent. In Truth Be Told, Serpick uses various shades of blue to create her imagery, along with a sassy green-blue that almost defies the parameters of her monochromatic scheme. In the corners of the painting, fragments of weighty calligraphic marks intermingle with leafy outlines and shadows in complex visual relationships between positive and negative space. Stenciled flower shapes spill through the middle of the work. Then, very faintly and quite suddenly, a pair of line-drawn hands appear, one at the top edge and one at the bottom edge of the painting, each pulling a thin string as in a game or as if tying a knot or crocheting. Similarly, this work’s fiery counterpart, Red Felt, boasts a jarring tomato red over deep burgundy and brown. Manuscript letters that spell “nopqel” line up at the bottom edge; cherries hang on a stem that graces the upper left corner and perfectly rendered, lifelike flowers cascade through the center. Numerous and disparate clues in each painting create nice compositions that lead one to satisfying dead ends.

Other paintings contain only decorative line, often presented in symmetrical patterns—like the mirrored flourishes of the first letter of a medieval manuscript. In these works, color relationships and the delicate texture of Serpick’s brush become the points of focus in the absence of more narrative and figurative elements. While the artist’s color choices and technique are successfully daring, these works are less captivating of one’s attention than the paintings that contain more layers of information.

Stephanie Serpick, Spotlight, 2003
Acrylic on paper
15 x 11 1/4 inches

Finally, standing out in this body of work is a simpler, smaller painting with as much impact as Retreat. Spotlight possesses a flat red surface with an orange shape that reads as a spotlighted area on a stage or perhaps the side of a building under the glare of a car headlight. The spot is empty, not highlighting anything at all; it is simply a space defined by light. Moreover, on the surface of this vague and shallow scene, Serpick adds fragments of a creamy white floral design and the top of a Greek vase, again as if cut from wallpaper or fabric. With this baroque element, is she punctuating the moment as if to signal the end? Perhaps she means to cover up, invade or mock the spotlight’s eerie emptiness with decoration or with a reference to some other time and place. In any case, Spotlight is among the strongest works in the exhibition.

Serpick succeeds in her endeavor to align perception and appearance with three main elements. Layered paint and slight lines allow imagery to be discovered rather than seen. Fragments of letters, words and forms challenge us to read them and unabashed decoration both begins and interrupts our knowledge of what we learn to see in her work. Serpick’s often obscure and varied references are conceptual in spirit. Yet, easily recognizable are allusions to nature, words, paper—things that are experienced by our senses including our sense of intuition, which in many cases, perceives the simultaneous appearance of romance, unease and fantasy.

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