Anna Conway “Desert” (2017) oil on canvas, 30 x 48 inches (all images courtesy Fergus McCaffrey)

The vistas depicted in Anna Conway’s paintings for her exhibition at Fergus McCaffrey are wide and deep and mostly devoid of human presence. They are also elegantly composed and as rigorously quiet as the pursed lips of a schoolmarm keeping watch during classroom reading time. This to say they are grim images. The majority of her landscapes in the Anna Conway show are modernist, urban spaces: a museum late at night; well-lit, monochromatic office spaces; underlit, high-rise apartments with pendulous chrome lamps and mottled calf-skin rugs that look staged for a photo shoot in Architectural Digest.

But in each painting there are small intimations of our preindustrial past that place our contemporary moment in heightened relief. There is a tribal figure in “Desert” (2017) who stands off to the left in what looks like sternly demarcated plots of ground being irrigated by water sprinklers. This might be a vegetable garden for the inhabitants of the lit building in the background, but every element in this painting asks to be read allegorically: the silhouetted African figure is a representative of the primordial; the sprinklers and garden are modern, regulated production; the satellite dish antenna on the back building represent the technically sophisticated people using these resources; and the small water bottle in the foreground speaks to our selfish, personalized, wasteful, yet aesthetically pleasing habits of nourishment — which ultimately are unsustainable. Conway demonstrates a bright intelligence by embedding a kind of memento mori in these images to indicate something of the past the viewer can recognize as preamble to our current state of affairs, and a sign of what has been lost with the onset of the modern world.

Anna Conway “Rhino” (2017) oil on panel, 44 x 66 inches

The combination of yawning space, foreboding quiet, and signs of a primal world feel dystopian. I’m reminded of films like Twelve Monkeys, I Am Legend, and 28 Days Later, (and a particular episode of the Twilight Zone starring Burgess Meredith), in which the scarcity of humanity is both the profound fear and the desired fantasy. We can grok just how desired the fantasy is by gauging how often we play it out in our stories. On some level, perhaps just below consciousness, we realize that our way of living is not sustainable — at least not ecologically.

In Conway’s painting “Rhino” (2017) a rhinoceros rears up in what looks like a museum gallery after closing. The ceiling lattice work with its orderly scheme of glass windows and the manicured, symmetrically placed, under-lit trees are beautifully picturesque, but the rhino barely visible in cobalt and black has its open mouth raised to the night sky which is obstructed by the anthropogenic ceiling. Next to the animal is a dumpster full of coal or plastic wrapped waste — in the darkness it’s impossible to tell which. Either way the rhino has ended up here to exist only as symbol. It’s already dead, and may have died anyway in the cutthroat state of nature. There, though, in contrast to the modern world, it wouldn’t have been put on display to represent the prowess of the hunter and our own agonized posture, acknowledged: it could have remained present and thereby powerful in its persistence.

Installation view of Anna Conway at Fergus McCaffrey

Anna Conway continues at Fergus McCaffrey (514 West 26 Street, Chelsea, Manhattam) through December 23.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...