Emilie Stark-Menneg: Strawberry Moon
On ViewSteven Harvey Fine Art Projects
September 8 – October 9, 2021
Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects
September 9 – October 16, 2021
Emilie Stark-Menneg is a psychological artist, but to call her one is to do her a disservice. Eric Fischl, for instance, presents us with fraught moments in the lives of his subjects, fragments of a narrative, but Stark-Menneg sets aside stories in favor of psychic icons of an autobiographical nature. Which is to say, she plumbs the depths of her psyche not for explanatory or revelatory tales in the Freudian mode but for signs, metaphors that summarize states of being: like the Surrealists, she makes a deep dive into her unconscious where those metaphors, those combinations of experience, memory, and imagination are stored and then translates them into acrylic paintings. Small wonder she needed two gallery spaces, themselves set at the poles of the New York art world—the Lower East Side and Chelsea—to make her vision manifest.
Stark-Menneg is a new version of Narcissus, not in love with her reflection in a pond, but in love with the discoveries she can make by essentially being two people at once, an analyst and an analysand. Take The Gardener (2021), a large 44 by 56 work in the Steven Harvey space. Ostensibly, this is a nude self portrait of the artist plucking flowers from her vagina. The point here is not to be risqué but to show that Elizabethan poet Philip Sydney’s muse who said “look into thy heart and write” should have been more explicit about where the seat of feeling and passion actually is. Stark-Menneg shows that fancy is indeed bred not in the head but in the heart, that is, within the viscera. She makes us realize that for an artist the mind-body split is a fallacy, that both combine to provide the discerning consciousness with raw material.
This we can confirm with two other works at Steven Harvey: Heart Wash (2021) and Look for the Heart (2021). Heart Wash appears to be an underwater scene, until we realize that water in these paintings evokes a primordial idea of the unconscious. The image is a woman’s face (the artist’s), under water but holding over her head a heart. Just as the water indicates the unconscious, the heart suggests the goal of her self-exploration: the image the artist finds within and translates into art. Look for the Heart, a large 70 by 70 work, crystalizes the moment the artist has found what she seeks inside herself and must rise out of herself into the world of paint and canvas. So, a female figure staring up from the depths of an amphitheater toward a starry sky. Like Hemingway’s fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea, Stark-Menneg must submerge herself within herself to find that elusive heart.
The works in the Morgan Lehman gallery take these precepts—finding the source of art within the depths of her unconscious—to a different plane. First, the matter of scale: several paintings in this venue measure 80 by 100 inches, the larger landscape format indicating a departure from intimacy and an opening up of perspectives. It is as if Stark-Menneg found more than one heart in her self-explorations and was now able to deploy her discoveries in structures outside herself. Lyrae (2021) depicts a nude female figure reclining in a kind of aquatic hammock, again a watery medium indicative of the unconscious. But now that figure floats not only in water but in an archipelago of color masses. Yes, an artist is still the subject of art, but now the art is a landscape in itself, a vast stage, yet another version of the artistic mind.
Strawberry Moon (2021), the tour-de-force work that provides the overall title to the double show, summarizes Stark-Menneg’s esthetic process. Another 80 by 100 inch piece, this one depicts a huge female figure ecstatically smashing a strawberry against her mouth, all in a matrix of strawberries and a moon that blazes like the sun. Again, the subject is the artist, not in the process of exploring the inner reaches of her mind, but in experiencing sensual delight. Devouring the strawberry is visceral pleasure, the body’s joy. Stark-Menneg is not only a painter of the mind but also of the body. She overcomes the supposed opposition between the physical and the mental by presenting us with an image of her physical self in a sea of glorious color. This is a joyous painting, a celebration of Whitman’s “body electric” transformed into a fabulous icon of a woman enjoying her body transformed into art.