Contributed by Patrick Neal / Is the detectable hand of the artist evidence of a unique creator, or is gesture mainly indicative of earlier painters’ touches, the ghosts of art history? More broadly, do we choose the course of our own lives or are they predestined? These thoughts about individual sensibility and personal agency occurred to me while viewing Alyssa Klauer’s fine, visually and intellectually energized solo show “Dare Me,” on view at Olympia on the Lower East Side.
Klauer’s small and medium-scaled paintings, in acrylic and oil on canvas, line the walls of the second-floor gallery. Two larger pieces are hung downstairs in a glass window. Her work seems to walk a tightrope between the autobiographical and the anonymous, idiosyncratic and mechanical, authentic and appropriated. She gives us a glimpse of a true self, but it orbits dazzling artifice. Fantastical and surreal scenes dotted with kitschy props and staged with art-historical vignettes are nested in funky still life and landscape formations. Motley imagery incorporating culture both high and low hovers on the front plane of the canvas, set against deep, indeterminate galaxies or earthbound vistas. Skillfully rendered objects and figures connote a range of familiar styles and periods. Klauer’s motifs are poetically scrambled into loose narratives suggesting both conscious storylines and subconscious dreams and desires. Some paintings are over-the-top garish and supersaturated, others restrained and contemplative with just a few lyrical colors.
Themes and imagery recur in Klauer’s work. The face of a wide-eyed girl with a hot red physiognomy is a key player. Her visage fades in and out of scenes in a variety of manifestations – on the pages of a book, on the side of a shoe, and like Ophelia peering up through water. Glowing white gauze drifts from painting to painting, sometimes as the ectoplasm of a ghost, phantom, or alien, in other cases forming the sheer strands of panties, lacy dresses, masks, and veils. Elsewhere it is re-imagined as gossamer, stars and moons, diaphanous stingrays and spider webs, or ice and water, and even extended to opaque objects like the marble head of a statue or candle-wax. Indices of sex and gender abound: high-heeled shoes, fuzzy slippers, strands and clasps of chintzy jewelry. The gallery swarms with rainbows, colorful desserts, bits and pieces of statuary or crockery, creepy anime, and bulbous eyes resembling breasts.
Klauer constructs her paintings a bit like screen prints, for which a broad background is laid down first. Successive layers are placed on top, multiplying painterly effects. She uses stenciling, masking, and resistance techniques to contain paint within prescribed shapes, leaving finer details and finessing for the outermost surface. The backgrounds are sometimes speckled like a starlit night or spongy like densely blanketed foliage. A few have bold calligraphic gesturing depicting the petals and stems of flowers, sometimes subtle in color and fusing foreground with background. The painting Kiss and Cry, in frosty blues and whites, evokes the sensations of ice-skating, the composition cleverly bisected to reference activity above and beneath the ice. She employs a minimal palette of thinned and beaded paint for after-images, shadows, traces, and tracks.
Many of the outermost layers of Klauer’s paintings have wispy contour renderings resembling crooked fingers, vapor trails, tendrils, and vines, reminiscent of the curves and flourishes of the Rocaille style. The Third, a small painting, blends these motifs in a scene that evokes a séance or a still out of Dario Argento’s supernatural horror flick Suspiria. The painting feels ritualistic, dreamy, and magical, overlaying a woman’s holographic profile with hints of space portals, cosmic time warps, and secret knowledge of the mysteries of the universe. A Squandering, in confectionery blue, white and pastel colors, depicts a surreal birthday party or religious rite as if envisioned by Pavel Tchelitchew meeting Peter Saul. A surprised youth appears to be knighted and celebrated while receiving the Holy Spirit, courtesy of a friendly ghost with a scooper-like scepter. Flickering candle flames mingle with the melting remains of an ice cream cake rendered by heavy pours of paint and liquid colors that Klauer has allowed to dribble and mix.
In conversation, Klauer has discussed the hyper-feminization of ‘tween and adolescent girls and her own coming out as a queer woman – experiences at two ends of a spectrum that runs from suffocating to liberating. Her female protagonists, enmeshed in precarious trappings, bring to mind Emilia Olsen’s paintings of women who straddle skulls and cacti, and the over-the-top sexual excess and adornment seen in Kelli Williams’s work. The surfaces of Klauer’s paintings are like enchanted mirrors reflecting back a strange version of the truth, and a worthy contribution to new Queer Figuration.
“Alyssa Klauer: Dare Me,” Olympia, 41 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, New York, NY. Through August 11, 2021.
About the author: Patrick Neal, a regular contributor to Two Coats of Paint, is a painter, freelance art writer, and longtime resident of Long Island City. He recently had a solo show of paintings at Platform Project Space titled Winter Was Hard, Still/Lives from Lockdown and is a Cycle 1 recipient of a City Artist Corps Grant.