Contributed by Paul Laster / Blurring the boundary between abstraction and figuration, Ilana Savdie makes colorful canvases that take the eye on a rollercoaster ride through splashes of paint, flesh and body parts. A recent Yale MFA grad who has continued to work in New Haven over the past year at NXTHVN, an art residency and exhibition space co-founded by Titus Kaphar, Savdie was born in Miami, grew up in Colombia, and has lived and worked in Brooklyn for more than a decade. After exhibiting in a number of group shows in Europe and the U.S. since leaving school, the artist makes her solo debut at Deli Gallery in Bushwick in an exhibition featuring nine paintings and two related drawings (all 2020 and 2021).
Inspired by the costumes and characters in the annual Barranquilla Carnival celebration in Colombia and American cartoons from her formative years, Savdie starts her paintings with ink drawings that she scans into the computer and manipulates digitally to create new compositions. These analog drawings are basically black and white doodles, mixing figure and form in a stream-of-consciousness way, while the modified digital designs provide a point of departure for further hand work. Laying down a ground of vibrant pours and brushstrokes, Savdie builds her compositions by layering intricately painted body parts, fields of color, and fleshy shaped sections of brushed beeswax on the abstract surfaces of her canvases.
To’a tus ofertas, que sagradas (All your offerings, how sacred) presents the scrunched-up body of a Marimonda character (a figure in Barranquilla’s carnival with big eyes, long nose and floppy ears that is said to have originated as a mockery of Colombia’s oppressive elites) and a long-necked, birdlike figure with twisted fingers for a beak and curled up toes at the feet. Bodies seemingly in the state of becoming, the figures are composed with areas of underpainting that have been left exposed and further shaped by expressive pours and brushwork and swaths of pink, beige, and lime-green paint and flesh-colored beeswax.
The painting A primal leap repeats the long-necked bird motif with similar actions and strokes composing the creature’s physique, while A Theatre of matter immerses the bird figure in swirling masses of paint, which are fashioned to resemble breasts, buttocks, intestines, and legs on a perched form. Constructing more human-like visions, Low pitch complicity depicts a body directly diving into the painterly action and Trapa-lenguas (Tongue trap) suspends a body into the painterly realm like a trapeze artist dangling from a swing. In this case, however, the swing is a mass of undulating green, blue, and purple painted beeswax dissecting the canvas like a rolling wave.
Three smaller, 16 x 20-inch paintings serve as studies or testing grounds for the larger canvases in the show, but each is a gem in its own right. Marimonda en reposo is especially fascinating for its portrayal of the carnival character stretched out and flattened on the beams of a railroad track. Mimicking a scene out of a Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner cartoon (The Ren & Stimpy Show inspired details of other paintings), the flattened figure is equally comical and disturbing in Waiting to emerge as catastrophe, where the haunting, crushed character appears defeated once again. Dealing with the fluidity of identity in confronting power, Savdie uses distorted figures and forms as a means of resistance, but the fight for non-conformity is not a struggle that’s easily won, unless you’re a talented painter making art.
“Ilana Savdie: Swimming in Contaminated Waters,” Deli Gallery, 110 Waturbury St., Brooklyn, Through April 04, 2021.
About the author: Paul Laster is a writer, editor, curator, artist, and lecturer. He is a contributing editor at ArtAsiaPacific and Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art.