Kathryn Jacobi’s Smarty Pants, at Alan Avery Art Company through November 7, is a visionary, sometimes gut-wrenching tour through modernist art history and modern life from 1930 to today.These life-size portraits of children (Jacobi calls them “unusual children,” for good reason) are painted in a range of realist styles ranging from Ben Shahn via Blue Period Picasso to the psychologically charged precision of portraiture by, say, German artist Christian Schad, with a few more recent styles referenced as well.
These oil-on-paper works are largely based on actual photographs, three contemporary but most from the 1930s or earlier. Even when the photos were taken somewhere else, the images from family albums look like mythic references to the lost world of Mitteleuropa most recently given a new myth in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Anderson’s movie is a bittersweet comedy; by contrast, there is nothing funny about most of these paintings, and some of them, most notably Girl With Shark, seem like allegories of the dark times to come. The girl who holds a baby shark is painted in something like a Neue Sachlichkeit style reminiscent of the prewar work of Felix Nussbaum (of Self Portrait With Yellow Star fame), and is overshadowed, literally, by what is presumably the shadow cast by the photographer.
The paintings are what they are, and something else as well. Like all (sur)realist pictures, they are transmuted by the personal and historical information we bring to them. Most of them may feel like evocations of Central Europe circa 1930. (There are, incidentally, baby sharks in the Baltic. Nonetheless, a query to the artist reveals that the shark was not in the original photograph from Berlin, suggesting that it was added for symbolic reasons.)
But the types of clothing found in them were worn by American children during the Depression as well, and the architecture in the background has been deliberately simplified to allow the viewer to project whatever story they wish.
Sisters is illustrative of Jacobi’s visual strategy. The two girls wear identical clothes except for their shoes and stockings. The forlorn-looking road on which they pose and the house behind them bespeak a loneliness intensified by the fact that the whole scene is rendered monochromatically, recalling its origins in a black and white photograph. The only naturalistic color is in the girls’ hair and flesh tones, focusing our attention even more on the dramatically shadowed faces. One looks dour, the other anxious.
It adds nothing at all to learn that this is based on a photograph of her husband’s mother and aunt in rural Maine in 1915. Jacobi has transported them into her own imaginative realm of being.
Despite the allusion to a famous Wallace Stevens poem in its title, A Fourteenth Way of Looking at a Blackbird looks more like an illustration for some fantastic Bruno Schulz tale set amid the cinnamon shops of the street of crocodiles. Boys in workers’ caps pose on a railing with a monkey or play a clarinet on a dark street. A red-haired man in a business suit cycles by them, and a woman wearing nothing but red high heels and halo-shaped headgear strolls nonchalantly down the sidewalk in the background.
The blackbird’s giant shadow dominating the composition seems more like the kind cast by a hovering predator.
The feast of off-kilter symbolism is clearly the key to this body of work. Its combination of reality and fantasy lends an added historical charge to so much of the show that the full-color contemporary paintings seem startlingly anomalous. These represent, however, the world we now live in, a world that includes a Girl With Balloon whom Jacobi describes as Canadian Vietnamese, and a Boy With Horn who seems as surreal in his own right as any of the figures in Blackbird.