Of Mirrors and Windows: Sarah Curry at HEDGE
Artists are also educators, one way or another, whether as a day job or in the sense that they communicate through their art. They have an important role in the great human project of personal growth as they search out the hidden shape of the spirit.
In a statement introducing Underestimated, her current solo show (on view through Friday at HEDGE Gallery), Cleveland-based painter and teacher Sarah Curry quotes the prolific Chicago journalist/essayist Sydney Harris, who wrote, “The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows.” Maybe any painter’s life work could be seen as an extended illustration of that statement, but Sarah Curry’s passionately observed portrait images of young women explore the specific transformation that marks the teen years of her students. It’s a time, as Harris suggests, when the view from the self is extended out into the unknown — an explosive moment, not least because the sense of self is radically threatened by the collapse of boundaries, the outward rush of formerly stable dimensions. This inward/outward motion of the social and the intimate, the personal and the universal is Curry’s subject. Her paintings are always restlessly on the lookout for a place to pause and take in the rapidly changing perspectives of her young models. In the end there is nothing sentimental or maudlin about the more than forty painted studies at Hedge, completed over the last couple of years. If they have an overall emotional tone, it’s one of urgent hope, the throb of new capabilities as they begin to boil over into the world.
These are paintings that evoke a condition of flux, sometimes leaving a disembodied limb lying around in the composition as a deliberate pentimento that comments on the haste and speed of psychic and physical change. Or a psychological scene pushes against outdoor sports fields, as in the 2019 work, “Cheering for Herself,” which is (I would guess) one of the few serious paintings of a high school band musician in existence. Certainly it must be one of the most skillful, speaking of transitory trappings set against a stormy Rust Coast sky. These contrast dramatically with the nearly religious poise and calm of the young woman who dominates the composition. One tradition found in portrait art through the ages is the presence of a defining object or scene, telling us something of the personal history of the subject, and “Cheering for Herself” is partly that kind of painting also. She sits, this young person of our own era, with relaxed dignity, looking confidently at the viewer, though she could almost be a Bodhisattva, or a Saint, at her ease with elaborately laced, lovingly painted athletic shoes folded casually under her. She holds an open catalogue on her lap. She wears her umber hair long and loose, her makeup is very much of this moment, and a yellow-gold V-necked jersey shows under a lightweight jacket, as a cold autumn sky roils overhead. These details plus her bare, tanned right shin, tell us all we really need to know about her life as a graduating high school girl. But Curry adds one more important clue to the mix of hints: a gleaming cornet sits next to the subject, resting upright on its bell as if on a pedestal. In a way this instrument is as much the subject of the work as the girl herself. One of the remarkable things about the composition is the balance that Curry achieves between the object and the human being. The young woman’s firm, almost amused eye contact helps to rein in the horn. And then the overall watercolor-like technique of this mixed media on paper painting, mounted on panel, dappled in an autumnal rush of short strokes and melting reds and browns, makes a rich, half-abstracted visual field.
The show is titled, “Underestimated,” and Curry writes that, “I continue to discover a varying and conflicted world in which teen girls are navigating a complex terrain. I see myself in them and remember they are living my most difficult years.” She takes her subjects seriously as human beings, which is the mark of a good teacher as well as a good artist. Curry’s abilities to capture the fine points and broad planes of her subjects faces and postures, to rediscover their remarkably articulate hands, as well as the shades of courage and doubt in their eyes and the set of their mouths, are among the reasons to catch this show while it’s still on the walls at Hedge.
One other outstanding work here is a study of three girls called “Pull It Together.” They’re shown as if the painting itself was a mirror; their eyes are looking past us, or short of us, to see themselves as they rearrange their hair. They appear at once self-conscious, yet unaware of any gaze other than their own – thus they seem entirely themselves, alone and together. One of them stands behind the others and it appears that the mirror is broken in that place, shattered across her left eye and forehead. Closer to the viewer than the girls, though still apparently part of the reflection, two large hands are folded together, bringing another unknown presence into the frame. Rendered in a sensuous range of browns and blacks, the picture presents a smoke-like swirl of arms and hands, faces and points of view. It’s something like a patchwork quilt, something like a vortex, powerful and self-contained yet churning towards a third dimension. At her best, Curry discovers a reality in her paintings that has the sort of immediacy and depth of field, the psychological resonance of experience in time, that art is all about.