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« In Which We View Elena Sisto With Curiosity »

Elena Sisto, Waiting for an Idea, 2011. Oil on linen, 38 x 36 inches.

A Definition Growing Certain


Between Silver Light and Orange Shadow: Paintings by Elena Sisto
Lori Bookstein Fine Art

The most exciting painting shows suggest that the paintings themselves are generating new possibilities for the artist that one group of work opens the door for another. Elena Sisto’s recent work, shown at Lori Bookstein Fine Art in May, has this kind of energy.

The show’s earliest works, from 2009 to 2012, focus on young painters at work both fictional women and figures identified as self-portraits. In Self-Portrait (with Red Figure) and Self-Portrait (with Red Brush), figures from painting history appear pinned to the artist’s studio walls, hovering over her shoulders and viewing her work with perplexity or curiosity.

Elena Sisto, Self-Portrait (with Red Figure), 2011. Oil on linen, 33 x 40 inches.In the show’s most recent paintings, dated 2013, closely cropped images replace the fuller, more psychological portraits. These cropped paintings – featuring fragments of figures, canvases, and patterned clothes – have a clearer abstract force than the earlier works. Broad, loosely painted marks of varying transparency take on the expressive role played by the faces in the earlier paintings. Painting itself becomes the immediate subject, and a stronger tension emerges between the objects – buttons, hands, canvases – and their concise notation in paint.

Elena Sisto, Vest, 2013. Oil on canvas, 40 x 48 inches

After making images of young painters for several years, Sisto seems able in her newest work to remain conscious of the experience of the new painter, looking with fresh eyes, while also making use of decades of experience in painting.

Just as the newest work represents a shift from an intellectual consideration of young painters to a physical identification with them, as Sisto suggests in a recent interview with Art in America, it also represents a further step away from painting about a particular idea. In the closely cropped images, ideas are not separable from the images’ expression in paint. This concrete state of being recalls Sartre’s dictum that “existence precedes essence” – a person can only be defined by her actions, rather than by her aspirations.

Elena Sisto, Upside Down, 2011. Oil on linen, 25 1/2 x 36 1/2 inches.

The whole show, including the earliest paintings, demonstrates an understanding of painting on these terms. The paintings of young artists seem to have been made out of Sisto’s desire to find out what she thinks about painting, rather than to exemplify a pre-determined idea. The often blank, white-walled spaces in which Sisto’s young painters work suggest that the world of painting remains open and undefined until an artist determines its particular value for herself. We can’t see what the young painters are working on, leaving us free to identify with the general experiences of tentativeness and concentration rather than to judge their pursuit more specifically as absurd, pathetic, or narcissistic, the way we might in Philip Guston’s images of hooded figures painting their own self-portraits.

Philip Guston, The Studio, 1969. Oil on canvas, 48 x 42 inches; Elena Sisto, Painting With Music, 2011. Oil on linen, 36 x 24 inches; Elena Sisto, At Midnight, 2010. Oil on linen, 36 x 40 inches.

Sisto’s work offers the possibility that painters can choose their attitude toward their work. And her work offers, as an example, a tone of lightness. Her most recent paintings have an ease and inevitability that betray none of the “rocks in the stomach” that Guston complained about. While, for him, it became “boring to put paint on and to see yourself putting paint on,” Sisto’s paintings seem to come from a place where this activity remains magical. She understands what her fictional painter in Waiting for an Idea doesn’t – that the best ideas come out of working, from putting the paint on.

Eleanor Ray is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer and artist living in Brooklyn. This is her first appearance in these pages. You can find her website here.

Images appear courtesy of the artist and Lori Bookstein Fine Art, New York. All works except The Studio, Waiting for an Idea, and 8th Street were shown at Lori Bookstein in April/May 2013.

Elena Sisto, 8th Street, 2012. Oil on linen, 36 x 59 inches.

"Fifth In Line To The Throne" - Camera Obscura (mp3)

"I Missed Your Party" - Camera Obscura (mp3)

The new album from Camera Obscura is entitled Desire Lines and it releases on June 3 from 4AD.

Elena Sisto, Blue Blouse, 2013. Oil on linen, 24 x 24 inches

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