Friday, November 9, 2012

KQED Review: Happy Endings with Isabel Samaras at Varnish Fine Art

By Ben Marks | Nov 14, 2012

Large Image
Castaway (Howell), 2012.
In her new and recent paintings at Varnish Art Gallery in San Francisco, on view through December 22, 2012, pop surrealist Isabel Samaras continues to employ the aesthetics and techniques of Old Master and neoclassical painters to re-imagine the story lines of 1960s TV shows and movies. At first blush, this seems like a lot of trouble to go to. After all, do we really care about the psychological trauma of Thurston Howell, III ofGilligan's Island? And so what if Jeannie and Samantha of I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched are depicted as secret lovers. Are such frivolous fictional characters worth all the attention Samaras so obsessively lavishes upon them?
Perhaps not, but Samaras' keen eye and intelligent sense of humor elevate these pop-culture icons to almost Madonna-like (as in Jesus' mother, not the pop singer) status. And then there's the precision of her painting, which draws us in, literally, as we find ourselves edging ever closer to her often intimate pieces, lest we miss even their tiniest details.

When the Cat's Away, 2012.
Samaras' skill with a brush may impress us and entice the eye, but it's her facility as a storyteller and her sensitivity to cultural nuance that ultimately make her work so successful. For example, When the Cat's Away imagines TV sitcom sirens Barbara Eden and Elizabeth Montgomery lounging naked in Jeannie's famous bottle. Samantha puffs on a cigarette (the classic postcoital trope) as Jeannie thumbs the pages of what Samaras says in an interview is a 1960s Playboy. Though completely unclad, there is nothing especially provocative or even sexual about these two idealized gals. In fact, their sexuality is cleverly calibrated to its era, when the oxymoronic goal of wholesale displays of flesh was nothing more than tasteful raciness.

Cloud Nine, 2012.
A favorite what-could-have-been scenario for Samaras is to pair the Adam West version of Batman with the Julie Newmar incarnation of Catwoman. In Cloud Nine, the caped crusader sits upon a cloud in a heavenly aerie, gazing adoringly through his mask at his nemesis, whose only weapons are a push-up bra and high heels. As she has done with Frankenstein and his would-be bride, with Captain James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock, Samaras has created a parallel universe for her lovebirds so she might play cupid. Sure, she didn't have to depict the couple as if they were an undiscovered Easter egg hidden in some obscure corner of the Sistine Chapel, but I'm glad she did.

Castaway (Lovey), 2012.
These paintings can all be found in the "Today" section of the Varnish exhibition. Other new pieces include a quartet of modestly scaled henna-toned portraits of Ginger, Howell, Lovey and Mary Ann from Gilligan's Island, an even smaller painting of Wonder Woman (roughly 11-by-9 inches) and a substantial (42-by-42 inches) work called The Abduction of the Simian Women, which riffs on both Peter Paul Rubens and Planet of the Apes (in Samaras' version of Rubens' The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus, the painting's action revolves around the human sympathizer Dr. Zira). In the middle is a collection of older pieces that have been produced as new prints on wood. And then in the back of the gallery is the "Yesterday" section, which includes a number of paintings dating back to 2006.

The Abduction of the Simian Women, 2012.
Of these, my favorite is easily The Bluebird of Happiness, from 2010. In it, a woman wearing a billowing blue dress is holding an open red fan, upon which is perched the aforementioned bluebird. At first we wonder why the woman's eyes appear slightly crossed, and why her controlled smile seems about to crack into an unabashed grin. Then we notice the soles of a man's shoes, heels up toes on the ground, as well as the outline of a man's shoulder blades and head rustling beneath the satin and silk, his face apparently buried deep in the woman's crotch. Now that's a happy ending.
                                                           The Bluebird of Happiness, 2010.
Isabel Samaras: Making a Better Yesterday Today is on view through December 22, 2012, at Varnish Fine Art in San Francisco. For more information, visit