When Europeans immigrated to southeastern Pennsylvania over 300 years ago, they brought with them an aesthetic vernacular that became known as Pennsylvania Dutch folk art. The style—characterized by decorative repeated motifs, including flowers, stars, and birds depicted in a colorful, flat manner — adorned textiles, wood furniture, and household objects. The tradition conveyed the agrarian culture’s appreciation of nature, family, craftsmanship, and domesticity. In Anne Buckwalter’s solo show, Reins on a Rocking Horse at Rachel Uffner Gallery, Pennsylvania Dutch folk art covers every surface of the artist’s quaint interior scenes. From the tableware to the wallpaper, furniture, and bedding, Buckwalter fills each painting with elaborate patterns and motifs, but here they feature unexpected, erotic twists.
Rendered in crisp gouache on smooth panel, the paintings on view (all 2023) mirror the flatness of the folk art tradition from which the artist draws inspiration. Each interior resembles a relatively ordinary vignette with clean, orderly rooms and objects neatly arranged. Many are unoccupied, or seemingly so. However, a closer glance reveals evidence of human activity, specifically suggestions of carnal acts in glimpses of sex toys, pornography, and underwear. When people are present, they are seen partially through windows, doorframes, and computer screens, or reflected in mirrors. What happens outside the scope of each work is up to the viewer to decide.
Like a salacious game of eye-spy, Buckwalter’s paintings invite viewers to share in a semi-secret rendezvous. Some works contain cheeky objects like ropes, lingerie, and butt plugs, lined up and ready for use. In others, the risqué items are less conspicuous, such as the blue dildo arranged neatly on a shelf alongside a horse figurine, milk jar, and teapot in “The Moon’s Too Bright/The Chain’s Too Tight.” A painting of a young figure in colonial garb riding a gagged man like a horse hangs on the wall in the same piece.
These items sometimes take the place of their users, or accompany people engaging in various sexually charged acts. In “Solitaire,” a figure is seen through a doorway sitting on all fours and looking back toward the viewer in anticipation. A game of solitaire on the table alludes to play, as well as the companionless subject awaiting a partner. A similar peek into a carnal scene appears in “Criss-Cross,” in which a kneeling woman bound with ropes is reflected in a mirror leaning on a wall covered in floral motifs. Her feet appear at the bottom of the composition, as if the viewer is standing next to her; a glimpse of a whip lies on the flower-patterned bed.
Buckwalter often inserts the viewer into the action. In “Next Door Neighbors,” a nude woman with her torso and vagina exposed stands in a window, perhaps intentionally on view. The perspective, as if seen through binoculars, recalls Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic “Rear Window,” making the viewer the voyeur. Yet, despite our physical separation from the figure in the window, her conspicuous stance suggests a participatory role — perhaps a distanced tryst. Only one work, “No Touching,” features two figures, but self-gratification is implied as an exposed male lies on a bed with his penis in hand in front of a female presumably mirroring the act on herself.
Licentious as they might seem, Buckwalter’s subjects are also remarkably ordinary in their cozy interiors. And apart from a group of drawings on paper, the works lack one crucial detail: the sexual acts themselves. The only depiction of sex in the paintings is on a laptop streaming porn. Even then, only parts of the two bodies are visible. Instead, viewers are left to tap into their own imaginations and fantasies and build each narrative one vignette at a time.
Anne Buckwalter: Reins on a Rocking Horse continues at Rachel Uffner Gallery (170 Suffolk Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through November 4. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.