Virginia Wagner. “Sky Burial” (2016), ink, acrylic, and oil on canvas, 44 x 52 inches (images courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted)

There used to be even more birds in Virginia Wagner’s “Sky Burial” (2016) than there are now. Little by little, however, they flew away to oversee other quieter, but no less dynamic, images of hers. Still, there’s plenty of flutters and squawks to go around. Alfred Hitchcock would be pleased.

Few winged creatures inhabit Wagner’s most recent, well-crafted canvases currently on display in the artist’s first one-person New York exhibition. Metropolis, the title of the show, is also the inaugural solo show at the Kate Oh Gallery (November 9 – December 9, 2017). What an exciting way for both artist and venue to take off.

We take in Wagner’s strange, apocalyptic narratives from bird’s-eye views. “Sky Burial” is fascinating, but who would blame a pigeon or dove for leaving behind the alluring corpse, submerged naked in an unburied glass coffin, as well as any number of other dead bodies that drift toward the horizon? The seductive haze of distance is not just atmospheric perspective; it’s pollution. Here, it smells bad but looks good. Sublime, even. Sort of. That’s part of this artist’s strength: blending attraction and aversion.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Hunters in the Snow (January)” (1565), oil on panel, 117 x 162 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (image via Web Gallery of Art)

Without stopping, Wagner’s birds fly past some of her other beautifully dreadful cities and landscapes. Was it simply not part of their itinerary? It’s freezing in Pieter Bruegel’s “Hunters in the Snow” (1565), but that didn’t stop his black birds, ancestors to Wagner’s white ones, from hanging out in his pollution-free, fresh-smelling world. Whether perched or flying, Bruegel’s silhouetted crows, despite being bitterly cold, seem as content as the silhouetted skaters down below. But are they?

Though milder than Brueghel’s, the weather is also tougher and more unpredictable in Wagner’s world. The lovely warm and cool parts of her palette decorate dizzying, stomach-wrenching places in urgent need of remedies far more powerful than Pepto-Bismol-pink medicine. The settings for her stories are often psychologically and spiritually disturbing. It’s not a matter of a few missing shingles or a few broken stairs; it’s as if her pleasant, pastel colors have flown out of a bedtime story, smack into a nightmare. I imagine a pair of tiny ballet slippers pirouetting into a devastated park crammed with colorful swings and seesaws. And in the distance, I envision ordered rows of brand-new, see-through coffins.

Virginia Wagner, “Shadow Puppets” (2017), ink and oil on canvas, 44 x 56 inches

There’s beauty in this painter’s angst. There’s also humor, if we accept Samuel Beckett’s line that “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” as he once wrote into his 1957 absurdist play, Endgame. And there is surely unpredictability. When you’re inside one of Wagner’s complex compositions, you know how handsome they are to see, but you don’t know what to expect.

Of course, not knowing is utterly okay in Wagner’s fictive world. In fact, it’s key. A clear example: In “Shadow Puppets” (2017), we are surprised by fragments of two silhouetted figures on a centralized white sheet upon which a muted scene unfolds. Arms and hands reach toward each other. Longingly: are they lovers? Aggressively: are they enemies? What secrets hide behind the sheet?

In this same canvas, a stark, ordered, blue and yellow(ish) tiled floor (a signature color combo of the peaceful, meditative Vermeer — so different from the atmosphere we are presented with here) — lays the groundwork for nearby debris strewn throughout. Similarly, in Wagner’s “Metropolis” (2017), chessboard-like squares set the stage for the jam-packed tumult above. Buried in plain sight, an ensemble of intentionally way-too-small beach umbrellas and chaise lounges loll oasis-like beneath a pumpjack oil derrick. Oddball contrasts rub shoulders. The curling folds of high-pitched emerald-and-blue drapery are coupled with low-key generic boxes; transparent buildings weave through trees; and rainbow hues butt up against shale and mud, as shapes and colors interact the way one might imagine a chess game played between the likes of, say, Agnes Martin and Wangechi Mutu.

Virginia Wagner, “Metropolis” (2017), ink and oil on canvas, 44 x 52 inches

Vermeer portrays life’s order, beauty, and elegance. So does Wagner, but she frames them within an altogether different context. She seduces us into looking at them from reverse, from the starting line (or, better, endgame) of struggle and death. It’s all about the discomfort of certain points of view.

Same with Brueghel. His “Hunters” trudge their way back home. We’re close enough to hear their boots crunch virgin snow. And those hunting dogs … I pity their paws. The mens’ faces hurt. It’s that cold. Were there any successful kills? Will there be meat for their families tonight? Doesn’t matter. That’s not the point. The point is, struggle and death are part of life’s stalemate, and that’s what Wagner’s dark, difficult paintings are about. Her shadow puppet play and the deceptive sweetness of the lighter end of her palette are companions to Brueghel‘s children and other townspeople skating across a playground of ice … especially if you imagine there being serious cracks beneath their blades.

Realistic facts / surreal fictions / realistic fictions / surreal facts: Virginia Wagner shuffles them like a card shark. These fantastical, poignant, sometimes creepy pictures are fraught with conflict. I shouldn’t want to look at them so closely or for so long, but I do. The images shouldn’t work. But they do, masterfully. That’s because Wagner is in firm control of her craft. And because she is an exquisite storyteller of great ambition who tells impossible tales that we believe. At its best, this gifted artist’s work feels genuinely real, despite — or perhaps because of — how dreadfully she allows us to see.

Virginia Wagner: Metropolis continues at the Kate Oh Gallery (50 East 72nd Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through December 9.

Barry Nemett, Chair of MICA's Painting Department from 1992-2017, has exhibited his artwork in museums and galleries throughout the United States, Europe, Asia, and Africa. He lectures internationally...