Sarah McEneaney’s exhibition “Trestletown,” titled after her neighborhood in the Callowhill district of Philadelphia, just northeast of City Hall, featured 14 paintings that highlight her passion for local activism and that document her studio practice. Ranging in size from 1½ to 4 feet per side and made since 2010, the works convey the painter’s engagement with the city in which she has lived and worked for 30-some years, having completed her certificate in painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1979.
For more than a decade, McEneaney has worked tirelessly to convert Trestletown’s defunct Reading Viaduct into an elevated park. The initiative, scheduled to break ground next summer, stems from her commitment to blocking a proposed baseball stadium for the Phillies from being built smack in the middle of the neighborhood. Indeed, her ongoing connection to baseball (despite her neighborhood preservation efforts, she is a big fan of the team) and the fraught, never-realized project of building the stadium were suggested via the show’s first and last paintings. The artist is depicted wearing a Phillies sweatshirt in Twilight (2012), an egg-tempera-on-panel painting, and then sitting with two friends at a game in Baseball! (2010), a square egg-tempera-on-wood composition oriented like a baseball diamond. The subject matter in the remaining paintings is the complex cityscape that includes McEneaney’s home studio and the urban jungle surrounding it: industrial buildings (some hollow, others converted into residential condominiums), abandoned lots, murals (real and imagined) and graffiti tags, the artist assessing and imagining a rapidly changing ecosystem and skyline.
Viaduct, West Poplar (2013), an egg-tempera-on-wood painting, shows McEneaney from the back on a swing suspended from one of the viaduct’s rusty ribs, with her elderly dog Trixie, her environs in receding perspective, echoing the architectonic structure and clouds of Raphael’s School of Athens. The acrylic-on-linen Trestletown, 10th and Hamilton, 10th Floor (2012) features diagonal lines and sharp angles that bend the rules of perspective to accommodate an excess of visual information: threadlike blades of grass, miniature bricks, lacy metal fences and brightly colored buildings in delicate brushstrokes ornament the landscape. The artist is depicted multiple times in the composition: riding her bicycle, peering from a 10th-floor balcony, and wading through the viaduct’s overgrown weeds. Like Renaissance spalliera and cassone panels, many works repeat the same figures within single compositions: D and P Redux (2012), executed in mixed water-based mediums, shows McEneaney and her pets two times, once facing the viewer and once facing away.
McEneaney attends equally to human and animal characters, as well as natural foliage and man-made constructions, building up a vibrant cast for the episodic narratives that unfold. She continues her long-standing interest in art history, both in citing canonical works—Red Cross (2011), an acrylic and collage on paper, evokes Mantegna’s Dead Christ and Spanish old master crucifixions—and in sampling various painterly styles. Her canvases often recall Florine Stettheimer’s scenes, and feature passages redolent of Abstract Expressionism. Splatter marks cover the studio floor seen in two 2013 self-portraits, SP Studio and Studio 2013. In both, explosive splashes and broad, emphatic brushstrokes contrast with the almost calligraphic marks in which McEneaney has rendered the beloved pets, furnishings and paintings that populate her studio space.
The austere, sun-bleached environs of Chinati, the museum and artist residency founded by Donald Judd in Marfa, Texas, would seem to be an unlikely place to find Sarah McEneaney, the Philadelphia-based painter known for her richly textured, idiosyncratic figuration. For “West Texas,” her third solo show at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, the artist presented a new group of works inspired by a recent stay at the Marfa compound.
McEneaney has long been devoted to picturing the life of the artist at an almost granular level. Mundane, seemingly un-dynamic activities such as working in the studio, taking a bath or going for a walk are subjects she has returned to again and again. Chinati is something of a pilgrimage site of Minimalism, but McEneaney’s interests in the sensual pleasures of daily existence align her more closely with early 20th-century artists—Bonnard, Matisse—than those who came along after 1960.
This is delightfully illustrated in Star Party (all paintings 2009), in which the viewer joins a group of back-seat passengers to look out at a dazzling night scene. As in Matisse’s 1917 painting The Windshield, On the Road to Villacoublay, the edges of the windshield become a framing device, and through it we see a party of wild boars pausing under an enormous blanket of stars. Here the automobile is not an emblem of speed or progress, but a means of slowing down and appreciating the splendors of the countryside.
Many of the egg-tempera paintings in “West Texas” focus on the artist alone with her dog, reveling in the monastic retreat where so many have worked before. Locker Plant Studio presents an atelier uninhabited but for the dog. The painter’s tools—pounce stick, palette, a can stuffed with brushes—are laid out and at the ready, as if she has momentarily walked out of frame. Using her characteristic forced perspective, McEneaney pulls us deep into the room, where a tiny self-portrait (the very one that opened the show at Tibor de Nagy) looks back at us from the far wall.
In Chinati Library, the psychic residue of other artists (John Chamberlain, Roni Horn and Ilya Kabakov to name a few) becomes more explicit. McEneaney depicts herself sitting between a long, awe-inspiring wall of artist monographs (some with titles visible on their spines) and an enormous Chamberlain sculpture. Perhaps the most resonant meeting of minds occurs in Judd Block Pool. Enclosed within a brick wall and a grid of barren trees, a blank “slab” of water reflects a pale blue sky. McEneaney’s almost manic focus on the patterns of the bricks, bark and pebble courtyard—all bound together by a fleshy, terra-cotta orange—offsets the stasis of the pool and gives Judd’s esthetic a surfeit of feeling that is anything but cool and rational.
Photo: Sarah McEneaney: Star Party, 2009, egg tempera on linen, 20 by 28 inches; at Tibor de Nagy.