“It Was A Good Day” by Ice Cube rattled through my head the other day as I skateboarded through Chelsea. Why was it such a good day? (I didn’t have to use my A.K.) No, it was a good day because I saw two solid solo exhibitions by Amy Wilson and Lucy Fradkin.
Both artists find inspiration in naïve art and the miniature painting of Persia, India and Northern Europe, but they use their inspirations to different ends. Wilson creates densely populated landscapes, which seem to be driven by the one-thousand-and-one-thoughts running through her head. Fradkin, on the other hand, paints deadpan portraits of oddballs and eccentrics.
Wilson is known for her drawings and handmade books that incorporate handwritten text. The stars of the show are an effusive band of ill-behaved girls in sundresses. What I find appealing about Wilson’s work is how it overrides my knee-jerk reactions to dismiss it. No matter what I see before me, I cannot help but be swept up in her novelistic universe.
At first glance, her works on paper, so reminiscent of children’s book illustrations, could be described as precious, adorable, cutesy. On closer inspection, the landscapes are crammed to the gills with text bubbles, which alternate between political diatribes and confessional diary entries. As a matter of personal taste, I tend to shy away from artists that use their practice as a bully pulpit. And yet, with Wilson, I can’t stop looking at her work.
So I may not agree with her personal vision of the world, but I do love the manner in which she creates it. Her pictures, which seamlessly incorporate paint, text, collage and fabric, are handmade, obsessive and kind of insane. When she nails it, as she does in “A Utopian Village, After Bosch” (2011), the work has a cinematic scope of vision. This painting depicts a teeming lakeside village in springtime, which sprouts more geodesic domes than the eye can count. Like Persian manuscripts, this painting required my undivided attention. The longer I looked at a painting, the more details and themes emerged.
But by far, my favorite work in the show is her suite of hand-stitched geodesic domes. I love the choice of fabric, which includes prints of ducks, bunnies and children. It’s nostalgic, playful and rides the edge of loathsome and odious. She exercises fanatic attention to detail as well. (Look at all those stitches!) In “Proposal for place to learn about history,” she constructed a tiny library, which houses more than 150 tiny hand-bound books. In “Proposal for a communal place to rest,” she constructed five miniature beds, each with duvet covers and pillows. As I write this, I can’t help but picture a young Wilson directing a utopian melodrama inside a dollhouse, with some irate deejay from W.B.A.I. screaming about Ronald Reagan.
Fradkin paints portraits of men and women in commonplace domestic interiors. Like nineteenth-century American folk art, Fradkin favors strong colors, direct application of paint, patterned surfaces and awkward proportions. (I love the blue gingham blouse and floral print linoleum floor in “Breakfast of Champions.”) The compositions are neat, and the spatial arrangements definite.
In much of the work, the subjects perform mundane functions, such as ironing laundry, pouring coffee, arranging dinnerware. However, in a few paintings, such as “Lucky Apparel” and “Perseverance Brings Good Fortune,” the subjects do not so much inhabit a specific place as they float in a neon ether, encircled by an aura of birds. Who are these people? Saints? Martyrs? Angels?
What I find intriguing about her portraits is how they depict a person in a specific moment of time, but do not declare a distinct personality. The subjects are everyone, but no one in particular. They’re penny candy icons.
The dour-faced hostess in “Trumpet Sonata” wears a floral print cocktail dress, lined knee highs and black go-go boots. She stands ramrod straight, a silver platter in her paws. If I did not know better, I’d think Fradkin is a fan of the Mad Men tv series. This interior, with parquet floor, vintage television set and weird floral painting, whispers Peggy Olson.
Amy Wilson’s We Dream of Starfish and Geodesic Domes is at BravinLee Programs (526 West 26th Street, Suite 211, Chelsea, Manhattan) until March 24. Lucy Fradkin is showing at Nancy Margolis Gallery (523 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan)until April 7.