Elena Sisto

by Hearn Pardee




Last fall was noteworthy for the appearance in New York of Velasquez's famous painting of the Infanta Margarita, on loan from Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum to the Guggenheim Museum. I encountered her unexpectedly as I rounded a corner, past an installation of Robert Mapplethorpe prints - I speak of encountering her, because that was the effect: after so many virtual personas in videos and photographs, I felt myself in the presence of the young girl herself. Perhaps it was the intimacy of the space, the surprise of the encounter, but I think it was also the physical effect of the paint that literally embodied the figure: a delicate but enduring presence, quite different from the instantaneous impression of photography.

I reflected on this experience at Elena Sisto's recent show of paintings entitled "Daughters", at Littlejohn Contemporary. Not just that each painting features a single young girl, but more the way each figure emerges from the paint to become a physical and psychological presence. There's a simple frankness in Sisto's rendering of these figures and in the flat geometry of their patterned dresses. Each emerges from thickly applied paint, sculpted by clearly defined shadows, in a palette of subdued colors reminiscent of Morandi, a painter Sisto admires. The gravity of the forms in their simple geometrical mass also recalls Piero della Francesca, in particular his sense of wonder at the three-dimensionality of painted forms. The same sense of fresh discovery animates the geometric patterning of the dresses, which recall the modern discovery of painting's fundamental flatness. It was Morandi who said, "Reality is the greatest abstraction." This rediscovery of old truths, a fresh vision of the world and of painting, reflects the situation of the girls, as they hover on the threshold of adolescence and a fresh beginning, yet still rooted in childhood, linked to the sources of creativity.

Sisto's painterly directness is thereby complemented with a psychological complexity more reminiscent of Balthus, another of her acknowledged influences. Over her career, Sisto has consistently explored her own emotions projected into surrogate figures -- first into cartoon characters and then into more naturalistically rendered figures from fairy-tales. Now, she pushes the conceit of the "painting as person" a step further, portraying girls we might actually meet. There's a social confrontation, not merely with the fictional character portrayed, who engages our immediate attention, but with the artist at work, a fastidious parent, concerned to present herself properly through her offspring. They remind us of any painter's anxieties when composing a "face", a painted canvas, with which to confront the world. The artist appeals to our sympathy both shyly and playfully. She places us, too, in a parental role.

By personalizing the painting, Sisto encourages a fresh awareness of how it engages us, and introduces tentativeness and uncertainty into that interaction. Since her figures are presented as members of the family, there are attendant risks of sentimentality or social commentary, which hover at the margins of our attention, but the isolation of the figures against their empty backgrounds secures them from any easy suggestion of narrative or anecdote. Though some are ethnically diverse and others suggest precocious sexuality, Sisto doesn't develop these qualities, and is rather at pains to prolong the initial encounter -- to refocus our attention on the sheer presence of the person, and the painting. The lack of context places the figure in direct relationship to the frame, so that figure and frame become a composite sign; the tilt of the head, the deviations from symmetry, the gestures of arms and hands (what does one do with one's hands?) constitute formal and psychological inflections that lend each girl a specific personality.

By prolonging the moment of first encounter, Sisto encourages us to explore our own psychological response. We continually examine the protagonists, but also develop an awareness of the layers of meaning involved in that silent interaction. Since the paintings are inspired by the artist's own daughter, they assume more immediate poignancy. Modern painting, modern children -- the Infanta Margarita was married off at the age of fifteen. These are Sisto's most complex and personal works - visually appealing, psychologically engaging on the level of their fictional characters, and intriguing for the insights they provide into the psychology of the artist and of the artistic process.


  Copyright © 2003 Hearne Pardee