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Sandra Scolnik: Self-Portraits
October 13, 2000–January 7, 2001

Sandra Scolnik
Self-Portrait in Pink Bedroom, 1998
oil paint on wood panel; 7 1/2 x 8 inches
Courtesy of CRG Gallery, New York NY

Sandra Scolnik's self has colonized everyone it meets. Scolnik paints tiny genre paintings in which every character in a tightly confined interior space is a self-portrait-her face on each figure. With her body of diminutive paintings - some smaller than six-by-eight inches - Sandra Scolnik confederates tense, constricted psychological dramas, generating a corpus of dreamlike works that interrogate the tangled nexus of self.

Common experience suggests that "The human head is the chief vehicle of social intercourse, through expressive conversation; and we usually expect the representations of heads to embody such lively qualities of the features as would be conveyed to us in real life." (1) Contrarily, Scolnik's repeated expressionless self-portraits reveal nothing of her subject - herself. However, it is in the figures' bodies - their dress, poses, and interactions with one another - that we find complex narratives of self-examination, of how-it-feels-to-be. In her early works, Scolnik began her self-investigation with black-and-white paintings on paper mounted on wood panels. In Self-Portrait as Quadruplets, for example, four girls - each with Scolnik's face - step forward on a stage ready to curtsy or dance. There is nothing behind them except a curtain. Their clothing is that of the late 1950s or early 1960s: shirt-waisted dresses, bobby socks, and Mary Jane shoes. Despite the title and its implication of sameness and togetherness, none of the girls seems emotionally linked to the others; they exist in the same space as if they don't know the others are there. Devoid of interaction, they merely stare straight ahead to the implied audience beyond their stage. Similarly, Self-Portrait as Double Twins presents two sets of twins in a rounded format (as if in vintage photography) in another stagelike setting. Instead of curtsys, these girls hold their hands demurely at their waists as if they have just received communion. That the figures don't engage one another despite their self-portraiture linkages, amplifies the tension of the unknown emotions Scolnik implies. She is deliberately ambiguous.

Scolnik's interior spaces are descriptively painted but, claustrophobic and enclosed, they stop short of seeming like actual places. These spaces in which she places the repeated imago of self suggest myriad narrative possibilities. She often paints a scene with an overall palette of one color such as blue or pink, as in Self-Portrait in Blue Bedroom, or Self-Portrait in Pink Bedroom. Yet no interior space feels like a haven for comfort or peace, as the home has often been visualized in modern advertising and the media. Even the blue, pink, or yellow palette of some of the paintings creates a brittle rather than comfortable space. Her larger, latest works are dark and foreboding, revealing more detailed interior spaces. Yet still, they do not seem like actual interior places - or safe places - but rather are fictional and capricious. In fact, Scolnik has slyly painted them to eventually change. By using paint in certain areas that will wear away and reveal another painting hidden underneath, she creates a shape-shifting narrative that will outlast her. Mimicking the arc of a life, the paintings' lives will mutate form and character. And parallel to the span of a life, the interiors map the light and dark places that rise and fall within a life.

Scolnik's focus on uncomfortable domesticated interiors articulates their difference from outside spaces; they may represent the murky inside of the self. All of Scolnik's narratives in this exhibition are told within these architectural spaces, playing on the idea of exterior versus interior. According to architect Adolf Loos, "The exterior of the house … should resemble a dinner jacket, a male mask; as the unified self, protected by a seamless façade, the exterior is masculine. The interior is the scene of sexuality and of reproduction, all the things that would divide the subject in the outside world." (2) As if self-consciously acknowledging a gender-based approach, Scolnik's interior spaces, peopled with herself and herself as others, suggest scenes of feminine relationships and development - "spaces of femininity." (3) Men rarely appear in the works and when they do, because they wear Scolnik's face, their gender seems to be unstable.

Scolnik's exploration of the interrelationships between women and their various stages of feminine development threads through her body of work. In Baby, she probes the mother-daughter relationship. The posed mother and daughter, wearing matching dresses, are echoed in the painting within the painting that hangs over the mantel. There, rather than posing, the mother and daughter play and dance together, perhaps suggesting the child's longing for the maternal body and the mother's longing for the child. The matching red dresses may be further emblem of the psychoanalytic desire for access to the maternal body and "to re-experience the pleasure of fusion with the maternal body" that children may instinctively crave. (4) In Self-Portrait with Dog, Scolnik's young persona is a stiff-legged girl, with Scolnik's adult face, standing rigidly in a room devoid of anything but she and a dog. She sports a minidress and a beehive hairdo, carries a little purse, and is accompanied by a tiny dog. Her body is that of a child, not of the woman's face she wears, magnifying the strained kinship between adult Scolnik and child Scolnik. While her adult face does not, her tightly squeezed-together child's legs heighten her vulnerability. By colonizing the child's body, Scolnik may regain possession of the vulnerable neophyte that she images in this and other paintings.

Scolnik's paintings that focus on the character Catherine suggest an alternative path for investigation into self, femininity, and interior spaces. While painting in Provincetown, Massachusetts, Scolnik listened to books on tape, including Wuthering Heights, and books about Catherine the Great, prompting her to use Catherine (with a variety of spellings) as herself/protagonist. The myriad spellings—Kathryn, Katrin, Katherine—augment the enigmatic narratives of self-exploration. For instance in Catherine, the heavy central figure, Catherine the Great, is also Scolnik with 30 extra pounds. She is surrounded by an evolving troupe of players that Scolnik repeats in other paintings. The Sisters was influenced by Scolnik's readings about Marie Antoinette who, as a 14-year-old girl, was taken from her parents' Austrian palace for her marriage to France's Louis XVI to form the Franco-Austrian alliance. According to Scolnik, upon arrival in France, Marie Antoinette was stripped naked for examination of her body to ensure that she was "whole." In The Sisters, the young girl in white panties stands awkwardly on a round coffee table while being indiscreetly inspected by four women. Of course, all the characters share the same facial features. Scolnik suggests the girl's intense vulnerability though her awkward stance, her thin and undeveloped pale body, and her white, child's panties. The sterile blue living room (fashioned after 1950s decorating magazines Scolnik studied) magnifies the girl's defenselessness and distress. Like so much powerless chattel, she awaits judgment on her goods. She does, however, cock up one shoulder in slight defiance. The girl's undeveloped body-Scolnik underpaints her - discloses her level of physical and emotional development. Figures who are vague and underdeveloped - their clothing has less detail, they may only be sketchily painted - suggest that they are still germinating personas within these narratives.

Scolnik's figures parallel her own development and transitions. Through these appropriated figures from fiction, history, and her own imagination, Scolnik investigates the formation of the self and its shifting place in a continuum that crosses boundaries between time and distance - her paintings on wood panels refer to other centuries and methods, as do her characters - and makes connections between the self and others. The unending search for self implicit in self-portraiture advances through Scolnik's body of work. Her strategy to understand how the self adapts, or doesn't, is a way to process the fits and starts of living a productive and contemplative life.

Dana Self

1. John Gage, "Photographic likeness," in Portraiture: Facing the Subject, ed. Joanna Woodall (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1997), p. 128.

2. Beatriz Colomina, "The Split Wall: Domestic Voyeurism," in Sexuality & Space, ed. Beatriz Colomina (New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 1992), p. 94.

3. I borrow this phrase from art historian Griselda Pollock.

4. E. Ann Kaplan, Motherhood and Representation: The Mother in Popular Culture and Melodrama (London, England: Routledge, 1992), p. 28.

Sandra Scolnik was an artist in residence at the Kemper Museum, working with schoolchildren for three days prior to her exhibition opening.