by Evan Moffitt
Diane Rosenstein Gallery, Los Angeles
Published in Art in America, November 2015
Sarah Awad’s paintings are sluices barely holding back a flood of Fauvist color. An emerald canopy bursts through an indigo grate. Dark leafy smears clash with splashes of fluorescent lime. Warring daubs of crimson and cornflower capture the full flame of a desert sunset.
Awad’s previous work was a lively and lucid play with odalisques and other motifs from classical painting. But for the twelve medium-sized paintings and six small works on paper in “Gate Paintings,” her fourth solo show, Awad has turned her gaze to ornament. In each painting, she renders a front-yard fence with broad strokes of oil on a canvas coated with matte Cel-Vinyl. The airy garden glimpsed through the subtle suggestion of a grid pulls the viewer from the pancake flatness of the Modernist plane into a semblance of spatial depth.
When depicted shut, a gate is a formal device that encourages the eye to look beyond its bars. As a grid it makes the painting flat; as a portal it gives it dimension. Pied-a-terre (all works 2015) spans two canvases, a small square attached to a larger rectangle, and the gate seems to swing across the joint. One can almost imagine the posts painted in the work’s right side cresting a low brick wall that hems the stoop of a Brooklyn brownstone. Exuberant gestural strokes accrue as the playful, repetitious curlicues of ornamental ironwork. There’s a surprising amount of movement in Awad’s vision of a static object that is designed to limit movement. Each whorl twists off its rigid frame like a wiry hair stubbornly resisting the grid’s comb. This unruliness peaks in Blue Hour, where the lattice of a metal fence swaddled in crepuscular purple snarls like an errant kudzu vine, twisting in rusty tones at the painting’s lower lip.
In Studio @ 9, the door to Awad’s own studio is split by shades of ochre and cobalt. The screen door, a ubiquitous feature of L.A.’s industrial art spaces, allows light to pass in one direction. Its surface catches afternoon sun, turning opaque to passersby while remaining transparent to those inside. At night, interior light casts a glow on the sidewalk; the solid barrier becomes a translucent membrane. In the painting this transmission of light acquires a palpable presence. The sun’s full swoop is frozen in chromatic contrast.
In The Poetics of Space, French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard said of the word “door” that “through meaning it encloses, while through poetic expression it opens up.” The same could be said of Awad’s gates and their relationship to the history of painting. If Awad felt fenced in by the opposition of abstraction and figuration, the works in “Gate Paintings” managed to escape this constricting narrative by refusing to commit to either style. As much as the paintings seduce with surface beauty, they invite us to break through the picture plane and enter a garden of possibility.