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.