Sascha Braunig’s modestly scaled oil paintings of humanoid presences upstaged many of the high-tech pieces in “Surround Audience,” the 2015 triennial at the New Museum in New York. The hyperrealist canvases of the thirty-three-year-old Braunig seem to play with the look and tricks of CGI skins, but she bases them on 3D models she makes from clay (and, on rare occasions, casts in bronze). During the painting process, the Canadian-born, Maine-based artist adds a wild variety of stripes, patterns, and trompe l’oeil effects. She maintains that her cyborglike creatures are usually self-portraits.
Although Braunig’s distinctive color combinations have a contemporary feel, her work engages with Surrealism, and in interviews she acknowledges Hans Bellmer as a major influence. Her painting technique echoes precisionist works by Salvador Dalí and Yves Tanguy. However, rather than infinite surreal landscapes, Braunig creates a consistently shallow space, her paintings recalling not only those of German artist Thomas Bayrle but also those of the late Italian realist Domenico Gnoli (1933–1970).
Two recent solo exhibitions afforded an opportunity to immerse oneself in Braunig’s hermetic and fantastic universe. A survey at MoMA PS1, titled “Shivers” and organized by chief curator Peter Eleey, featured twenty major canvases that Braunig made between 2010 and 2015, while a show at Foxy Production brought together a selection of her newest works. One of the earliest pieces at PS1, Sequins (2010), presents a generic CGI-like head in a sequined casing. Another, Goldwarp (2010), shows what looks like a sculptural bust in profile, or a side view of a mask, the modeling evoking a hard surface. The canvas is painted throughout with stripes of gray and yellow that suggest raking sunlight.
The more recent works at PS1 were eerier and more abstract. One of the most outstanding examples, Bridle (2013), shows a wavy form of red, blue, and green stripes that could be a sheath covering the head and shoulders of a figure. A chain around the neck area contrasts with the sensuous bands of color and suggests that the figure is a prisoner or a captive. Such images by Braunig harbor an emotional appeal, a sense of intense anxiety, with an impact far exceeding the paintings’ dimensions.
The Foxy Production show, “Free Peel,” included some fifteen paintings and works on paper, many of which imply movement within the confines of Braunig’s idiosyncratic, illusionistic spaces. Clearly female forms appear in various states of idealization or disfiguration. In Writhes (2017)—a narrow, vertical canvas—orange tubes delineate a gridded schematic figure with breasts and rounded thighs. The form appears to be folding in on itself as it sinks between curving leglike shapes, creating a gently erotic work that hints at intricate motion.
Unseen Forces (2017), at forty-two by thirty-six inches, was one of the largest works on view. In front of an undulating orange curtain, a wire-frame mannequin is bent forward as if taking a bow. A long silver evening glove is clipped to each shoulder. Like many of Braunig’s paintings, Unseen Forces evokes a sense of the uncanny, with the image alluding to human attributes and tribulations but eschewing flesh and blood.