Jeni Spota C.: Carnie Stars, 2015, oil on canvas, 13 by 16 inches; at Brennan & Griffin.

The texture of Jeni Spota C.’s paintings verges on outrageous. Impasto barely begins to describe the gooey slabs and thick crusts, the insistent materiality. For all of their surface intensity, however, the paintings never devolve into artifacts of performative bravado. They convey innocence as well as intelligence, modesty even, and a keen sense of both history and humor.

The nine recent canvases in her show at Brennan & Griffin (all 2015) riff on Simone Martini’s Maestà (1315), an iconographic staple in which the Madonna, enthroned, holds the Christ child and is flanked by haloed apostles, saints, and angels. In the Sienese fresco, the group constitutes a congregation, sober and worshipful. In Spota’s paintings, too, the characters align neatly, front row kneeling, but they form more of a troupe. Gone are the dignified, flowing robes, replaced by the costumes of Carnival: boldly striped pants, bright buttons, ruffled collars, scalloped skirts, polka dots, and the diamond patterns of harlequins.

In Dicey Fabulous Carnival, the show’s title piece, a regal canopy shades the ensemble and medallion portraits border the whole; both elements derive from Simone’s fresco. In the radiant Moonlit Maestà, Spota sets the assembly against a ruggedly brushed, deep-blue sky, its scatter of five-pointed stars like starfish tossed on a turbulent sea. An architectural framework of slender columns and Gothic arches elegantly encloses the scene.

Simone helped usher in a new naturalism to the rendering of figures in space; Spota dials it way back, to a primitivist, nearly cartoonish flatness. She paints eyes as dots and brows as mere dashes above them. Faces might be teal, terra-cotta, or gray, their cheeks and noses daubed in vivid, contrasting colors. Her halos read less as luminous auras than as clunky helmets—top-heavy accoutrements of spiritual ascension. 

Through this loopy, anachronistic inversion of style, Spota enacts Carnival’s irreverence and upending of convention right on the surface. In her early work, a decade ago, she reached back to Giotto via a dreamlike scene from a Pasolini film. Here, she invokes the function of the Christian festival in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance through the theories of Bakhtin, who wrote of Carnival as a time of fertile rupture, the temporary collapse of rigid hierarchies allowing for a fluidity within and between prescribed roles. 

The same dualism that defines Carnival drives Spota’s paintings. The works marry the sacred and the profane, the reverential and the satirical, the stable and the improbable. Spota fixes on a traditional iconographic scheme, and imposes upon it a gluey entropy. The paintings conflate the liberating debauchery of capital-“C” Carnival with that of its crude (lowercase) contemporary counterpart. What she does—at once examining and exercising permissiveness—turns out to be marvelously dicey, and surprisingly surprising.