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Natalie Frank, “Rapunzel I” (2011-14), gouache and chalk pastel on Arches paper, 22 x 30 inches. Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Purchase through the generosity of the Houston Endowment, Inc. in honor of Melissa Jones.

In an interview in Bomb (Spring 2014), Natalie Frank said something to Dasha Shiskin that caught my attention:

Paula Rego, an artist I greatly admire for her own work with fairy tales, had suggested that I look at the Grimm stories — no fine artist had considered them en masse.

One reason Frank’s remark got my interest was because I cannot remember ever hearing a young artist citing Rego – who is not as well regarded in America as I think she should be – as an influence. The other reason was that Frank talked about fairy tales – a fertile territory explored by artists such as Kiki Smith and Nicole Eisenman, and the writer Angela Carter who focused on the supernatural and dreadful.

Many fairy tales are about young girls and boys whose lives are controlled by the capricious impulses of evil stepmothers, vain queens and repressive fathers. With their memorable motifs, emphasis on transformation, anything-can-happen possibilities, and narrative concision, fairy tales have proven to be a rich domain of exploration.

It was only when I saw her exhibition of pastels, Nathalie Frank: The Brothers Grimm, at The Drawing Center (April 10–June 28, 2015) that I was able to learn what she was up to: I was not disappointed. Curated by Claire Gilman, the exhibition consists of twenty-five gouache and chalk pastel drawings on sheets of heavy Arches paper measuring 22 x 30 inches. I don’t think you need to know the particular story to be taken in by Frank’s work, and that is their strength. They stand on their own, even as they emerge out of tales we heard many times as children – probably in a sweetened version– and think we know. Frank’s drawings jettison the saccharine in favor of the original weirdness and base irrationality that animates the versions that the Brothers Grimm collected together in a number of volumes published, revised and expanded upon between 1812 and 1857.

Natalie Frank, “Cinderella II” (2011-14), gouache and chalk pastel on Arches paper 22 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Rhona Hoffman Gallery (Chicago); ACME (Los Angeles)

Fairy tales propose an alternative world – a never-never land – where subversive desires and illogical urges are inseparable. They dwell on betrayal, abandonment, greed, vanity, disfigurement and selfishness, And yet, there is almost always a happy ending in which love plays a role, and a new, more harmonious order is attained. Frank, however, isn’t interested in the ending, but in the passages where humanity’s baser instincts become synonymous with extreme behavior, such as the uninvited guest, a distant relative, who, out of spite, proclaims an infant girl will die when she turns fifteen. In the Brothers Grimm version of Cinderella, the two stepsisters cut off a toe and a piece of their heel, respectively, to get their feet to fit into the golden shoe. Walt Disney never went there nor did he have birds peck out the eyes of the stepsisters.

The light in Frank’s drawings is eerie, and the space is often enclosed and claustrophobic. In many of them, a young woman or boy is surrounded by an array of sinister creatures, witches and elves. The scale can shift suddenly and everywhere we look we see a grotesque being going about its business or, in some cases, looking at us. It is the never-never land aspect of the fairytales that gives Frank access to her imagination. In the best works, she arrives at a memorable image. She is most successful when the images in the drawing make the unforgettable motifs in a fairy tale take a back seat, which is no small accomplishment.

Natalie Frank, “Brier Rose III” (2011-14), gouache and chalk pastel on Arches paper, 22 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Rhona Hoffman Gallery (Chicago); ACME (Los Angeles) (click to enlarge)

For Frank to make a drawing that alludes to a well-known fairy tale, but becomes a thing on its own, she had to engage with the original narrative, its flood of necessary details, on numerous levels. In one of the “Cinderella” drawings, the heel of a red foot presses against the picture plane, a blue-rimmed eye peering out. It is a detail that leads the viewer to scrutinize the drawing and notice other details. The only place these dissonant and disturbing details add up in is in the fairy tale and, more importantly, Frank’s drawings. The numinous, jarring color and attention to gleefully monstrous details is masterful. Certainly no other artist of her generation has done as much with pastel. Drawing is central to her work, and with that comes the possibility of inventiveness.

In addition to Rego, Frank seems to be influenced by R.B. Kitaj and Ken Kiff, as well as James Ensor, Richard Dadd and Arthur Rackham, if he had become productively demented after ingesting some mind-altering mushroom. She’s absorbed the bizarreness of German Expressionism without sinking into parody or cliché, which they teetered on. Look at the eyes in her work, and how some seem to be under a hypnotic spell while others are possessed by a creepy curiosity we might associate with a mad scientist. At the same time, she can draw an insect with an accurate scientific detachment, while infusing it with unlikely colors. Her ability to bring together different kinds of drawing seems to me to be true to the tenor of the fairy tales, and their clash of different realities, rather than an attempt to develop a signature style.

Natalie Frank, “The Ungrateful Son” (2011-14), gouache and chalk pastel on paper, 22 x 30 inches (courtesy of the artist)

One of my favorite drawings was for a very short tale, The Ungrateful Son, who, for reasons that are never stated, hides a roast chicken from his father so that he won’t have to share his food. When his father leaves, the son gets the chicken to put back on the table and discovers it has turned into a toad, “which then sprang onto his face, sat there, and would not leave him. […] And the ungrateful son had to feed the toad every day; otherwise it would have eaten away part of his face.” This is one of the fairy tales that does not have a happy ending.

Natalie Frank, “All Fur III” (2011-14), gouache and chalk pastel on Arches paper, 22 x 30 inches (courtesy of the artist) (click to enlarge)

Frank depicts an androgynous head with green skin, and pink, green and blue shoulder length hair parted in the middle. The boy has fair features, luscious full red lips and tormented eyes that were inspired by beatific images of the crucified Jesus looking heavenward. An oversized umber, black and white frog sits impossibly on his forehead, as if it has sprang out of his skull. A long red vertical tongue emerges from their mouths, joining them. The head is hemmed in by pink and red sections, which are occupied by large winged insects.

The economy with which Frank arrives at this visceral image, which instantly made a deep imprint in my memory, is what elevates her work into the remarkable. You don’t need to know the story to be stopped in your tracks by the drawing. And if you want to read the story, which I didn’t know of before, you should obtain Natalie Frank: Tales of the Brothers Grimm (2015), a sumptuous book containing her selection of 36 fairy tales, some of which are not well known, accompanied by 75 pastel and gouache drawings. There are also black-and-white drawings surrounding the texts, and lots of fantastic marginalia. Despite the unsavory ingredients, Frank makes it all add up to a yummy, stomach-tickling brew.

Nathalie Frank: The Brothers Grimm continues at The Drawing Center (35 Wooster Street, SoHo, Manhattan) through June 28.

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John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the...