April 7, 2023
Reception for the Artist
Friday, April 7th, 5-8pm
Suzanne Unrein’s paintings project a utopian vision of an imaginary world in which all species co-exist in synchronous harmony. It is a virtual paradise where all sensate forms of creatures have come together to share their brief moment in the sun. Against a patchwork of dazzling skies, Unrein’s brush traces broad, fluid outlines to describe multiple overlapping and adjacent species, surrounded by tumultuous seas and lush, verdant landscapes. Unrein’s paintings contain echoes of Rubens’ visions of the Garden of Eden before the fall, yet in her version, paradise has undergone some mysterious revisions.
The human figures in Unrein’s paintings are mostly female or androgynous, and some sport non-human heads, lending an extra frisson to works like The Sea King and The Parade, which teeter on the edge of a no-holds-barred interspecies orgy. No one needs clothes, tools, or shelter since animals are full partners with us in the cycle of life.
In so doing, Unrein’s broader purpose seems to be an effort to super-charge humans’ identification with other species by way of a nearly pagan ideal of how we benefit when we intermingle and share our intimate lives. She isn’t instructing us to go out and re-enact the activities depicted in her paintings, but rather, like her, to develop and maintain an intuitive sense of what it would feel like to step outside of our own skins and into the awareness of other living creatures.
With their boisterous and dynamic rendering of human and animal behaviors, Unrein’s paintings are contemporary reminders of what has faded into a distant collective memory. It is a full commitment to exploring what Eden might mean in an ideal world. They are clearly intended for those of us who are hyper-aware that we are living in an age of accelerating environmental decline. To endow her landscape with such supernatural powers requires a particular variety of faith at this juncture of human history, when a global reckoning is beginning to occur with respect to the Anthropocene, and our species’ recognition of our moral and metaphysical failure in attempting to force nature to bend to our wishes.
Unrein’s optimism is the possibility that there will be a last-ditch worldwide effort to employ the full potential of human imagination to confront our own dilemma. The danger is that either nature will respond to our recklessness by somehow casting us out as unfit to be future inhabitants of earth, or that human greed will somehow trigger a catastrophic global event that dooms both the planet and ourselves. Whether it is, in fact, too late to save the earth isn’t really a provable point one way or the other, whereas the shared sense of purpose by which we might confront an unstable future has never been more critical. By evoking an all-but-lost paradise that somehow, inexplicably, might still be within our grasp, the paintings prod us, Unrein’s fellow inhabitants of the Eden we may never see again, to accept our shared responsibility to ensure that the oceans, lakes, rivers, plants, and animals that have been left to our care do not perish as a result of our recklessness.
An apt starting point for this position is the 2021 painting, Lost in the Harbor, whose composition shows what might be three related scenes, or the same scene shown at different points in time. With sinuous strokes, Unrein loosely captures six or seven human forms, none clothed, all in various stages of response to a boat-related predicament, which is possibly related to the presence of a lioness and wild boar on board the large craft in the center, precariously extending their heads over the bow. Despite the potential for chaos, the scene is one of pure visual harmony, with the body language of the multiple figures engaged in physical exertion rendered as if in an accidental state of grace.
Aside from forebears such as Rubens and Breughel, a thoughtful search for the historical antecedents of Unrein’s painterly quest might begin in the US, with the indelible series of pictures based on the theme of Peaceable Kingdom made by the Quaker minister and painter Edward Hicks (1780-1849) to visualize the prophecy from the book of Isiah (11:6): “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.” While all humans depicted in the sixty-two extant versions of Hicks’ painting are fully clothed and face the viewer in mannered poses, the uncanny sense of harmony between humans, other alpha predators like lions and tigers, and animals typically considered the latter’s prey has fascinated viewers about this theme since Hicks’ first painted it in the early 1830s. Unrein’s works share with these paintings the desire for harmony within nature, yet in her contemporary version, the animals maintain their innate animalism. Their instinctual responses and potential for violence while rarely acted upon, are nonetheless simmering throughout.
In terms of modern and contemporary painters whose influence can be detected within Unrein’s palette, choice of subject matter and technique, the first reference is to Picasso, Matisse, Soutine, and Dufy, who each invented a unique treatment of the pastoral landscape with figures. In the 1950s, New York painters like Grace Hartigan and Elaine de Kooning, whose style began as pure Abstract Expressionism and then gradually verged into figuration, demonstrated through example that such a transition was not a mere turning back the pages of art history. More recently, contemporaries of Unrein’s, including Cecily Brown, Judith Linhares, and Dana Schutz, have invented their own hybrid variations of figurative expressionism, in which animals also sometimes play a co-starring role. For these painters, the act of condensing an entire world view into a single picture happens by way of an act of profound identification with the subject at hand, and faith in painting’s ability to express the nearly inexpressible.
Discussing her work, Unrein pinpoints a pivotal moment in 2015, after she watched a TV documentary about Kevin Richardson, a South African man who runs a sanctuary for lions and leopards rescued from captive-breeding or cub-petting facilities, or otherwise harmed by their contact with people. On an impulse, Unrein got on a plane to Africa to meet Richardson and have the direct experience of benign contact with big cats, a turning point that was followed two years later by a trip to Bali and Borneo, where her experience of interspecies mingling was shaped by direct contact with monkeys and street dogs, who continue to play a prominent role in her paintings. Since then, her quest has been to articulate through imagery a psychological state of transformation, where the figures are in midst of experiencing a state of oneness with nature, much as any of us would expect to occur if we suddenly woke up in paradise.
A recurrent theme in our collective accounting of our species is that we connect with some essential part of ourselves when we are in a state of extended fraternity with other sentient life forms. In the painting What Lies Ahead, Unrein positions a single boat at the center of the composition, along with an interspecies entanglement of limbs, torsos, haunches and heads, each individual body doing its part to prepare for a group embarkation (or disembarkation). Employing a smoldering palette of fuchsia and sap green set against a marine blue background, Unrein’s whorls of motion describe the group activity with just enough details, to inform us that there’s something intimate, mysterious, and ritualistic present. We can’t exactly pinpoint their activity, but even without the specifics, Unrein is able to trigger within our imaginations an updated version of the paradise that Paul Gauguin channeled through his renditions of Tahiti. That it isn’t real, only adds to her achievement, since despite our suspension of belief, Unrein has given us a body of paintings that most of us would probably give anything to live inside of.
Characterized by the fervent energy of gestural mark making and wide swaths of vibrant, unnatural colors, these recent paintings are lyrical forms of civilized society immersed in a wilder existence. Joy, savagery and carnal sensuality that sometimes references violence, are expressed with a contemporary working of paint to create complex, emotional compositions by way of the subconscious rather than analytical mind. The background colors weave through the suggestive narrative forms, denying solidity while searching for an interconnectedness through instinctual motions. They depict a hybridized nature where animals and people are swept up in an urgent desire to exist, to flourish. The cast of characters convey shifting psychological states that speak to the ambiguities, transient responses, and faulty storylines of contemporary life.
Suzanne Unrein's work has been exhibited in galleries and museums throughout the U.S, including Rare Gallery (New York, NY), Mitte Projects (New York, NY & Miami, FL), Galleri Urbane (Dallas, TX,) Boltax Gallery at the Next Art Fair (Chicago, IL,) the Sara Nightingale Gallery (Sag Harbor NY) and Boltax Gallery (Shelter Island, NY.)
Recent shows include “Re-Wilding: JoAnne Carson & Suzanne Unrein” at the Sara Nightingale Gallery, Sag Harbor, NY, “Make Art Not War” at Pierogi Gallery, Brooklyn, NY and “Properties of Illusion in the Candy Store” at ArtPort Kingston, Kingston NY, curated by Laura de Chiara.
Unrein’s work was recently spotlighted in The Oxford Handbook of Perceptual Organization (Oxford University Press) and the focus of the short film, Hands & Eyes, that premiered at the Hamptons International Film Festival. Her residencies and fellowships include the Studio Program at P.S. 122 in the East Village, the Jentel Foundation in Banner, WY, and the Can Serrat residency in Le Bruc, Barcelona, Spain. Unrein's work is in the public collections of the Eileen S. Kaminsky Family Foundation, Jersey City, NJ; the U.S. Embassy, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia; Fish & Game, Hudson, NY and The Kevin Richardson Wildlife Sanctuary, Pretoria, South Africa. Unrein is a California native and a current New Yorker.
Two-Person & Solo Exhibitions
2023 Undertow, Mosaic Artspace, Long Island City, NY
2022 Re-wilding: JoAnne Carson & Suzanne Unrein, Sara Nightingale Gallery, Sag Harbor, NY
2019 Slip, Sara Nightingale Gallery, Sag Harbor, NY
2015 Fresh!, RARE Gallery, New York, NY
2014 BG Gallery, Santa Monica, CA
2012 Interlopers, RARE Gallery, New York, NY
2011 Boltax Gallery, East Hampton, NY
2010 RARE Gallery, New York, NY
Galleri Urbane, Dallas, TX
NEXT Art Fair, Boltax Gallery, Chicago IL
2008 Subtracting Evolution, Boltax Gallery, Shelter Island, NY
2023 Paroxysm, Westbeth Gallery, New York, NY, curated by Alison Pirie
All in One, Anderson Contemporary, New York, NY
Properties of Illusion in the Candy Store, ArtPort Kingston, Kingston, NY, curated by Laurie de Chiara
Make Art Not War, Pierogi Gallery, Brooklyn, NY
The Line of Reflection, Mitte Projects, Miami, FL
2021 Hudson River Museum, Benefit Auction curated by Paul Laster, Yonkers, NY
I'm So Glad I'm Just Like You, Brick and Mortar Gallery, Easton, PA
Language is Never Neutral, online exhibition, Mitte Projects
Going for Baroque, The Gallery Space, Rahway, NJ
Group Show, online exhibition, SHRINE, New York, NY
2020 Parrish Art Museum, Charity Event, Water Mill, NY
Reaction in Seclusion, online exhibition, curated by Beatrice Hasell-McCosh, London, UK
Imaginary Future, Mitte Projects, online exhibition, curated by Frances Sinkowitch
2019 Play Me, Mitte Projects + Wynwood Arts 29, Miami, FL
Art in Embassies, U.S. Embassy, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
BG Gallery, Santa Monica, CA
Afflatus, 5-50 Gallery, Long Island City, NY
Holly Hunt, Los Angeles, CA, curated by John Wolf
PS122 Gallery, New York, NY
2018 Mitte Projects, New York, NY
One Art Space, New York, NY, curated by Rik Singley
Mitte Projects, Coconut Grove, FL, Mitte Projects, Miami, FL
Dearest Everybody, Hollywood Forever, Los Angeles, CA, curated by Inara George
2017 #friendswithboats, Sara Nightingale Gallery, Sag Harbor, NY
Open Garden, Sara Nightingale Gallery, Sag Harbor, NY
2016 The Persistence of Urgency, Mayson Gallery, New York, NY
2015 Heather James Fine Art, Palm Desert, CA
bG Gallery, Santa Monica, CA
2013 Anacostia Art Center, Washington DC
Boltax Gallery, Shelter Island, NY
2012 Scope Miami, RARE Gallery, Miami Beach, FL
The Contemporary Figure: Past Presence, Museum of Art & History, Lancaster, CA, September 6-November 24
Texas Contemporary, Boltax Gallery, Houston , TX
2011 Texas Contemporary, Boltax Gallery, Houston, TX Dallas Art Fair, Galleri Urbane, Dallas, TX
2010 The Norwood Collection, Norwood Art Club, New York, NY
2009 SCOPE Miami, RARE Gallery, Miami Beach, FL
8x12, RARE Gallery, New York, NY Suzanne Unrein, Heejung Cho, Hong Seon Jang, Gallery 201 at PS122, New York, NY
2008 The Art of Thought, The City of Brea Art Gallery, Brea, CA, curated by Kim Abeles
Awards & Grants
2018 Fellowship, Can Serrat Residency, El Bruc, Barcelona, Spain
2009 Fellowship, Jentel Artist Residency Program, Banner, Wyoming
2007-9 Project Studio Recipient, Painting Space 122, New York, NY
Andromeda Advantage, Long Island City, NY
The Eileen S. Kaminsky Family Foundation, Jersey City, NJ
U.S. Embassy, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Fish & Game, Hudson, NY
The Kevin Richardson Wildlife Sanctuary, Pretoria, South Africa
Books & Catalogs
2019 Catalog, Art in Embassies, US Department of State
Catalog, 2015-2018 Residents, Can Serrat, El Bruc, Spain
2015 Wagemans, Johan, The Oxford Handbook of Perceptual Organization, The Oxford Press, pp. 914-916.
2010 Catalog, Art Auction For Haiti, Boltax Gallery, New York, NY, January 28
2008 Catalog, The Art of Thought, Curated by Kim Abeles, City of Brea Art Gallery, Brea, CA
1997 Catalog, New Painting and Sculpture, Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, MA
About Mosaic Artspace
Mosaic ArtSpace (MAS) is a multi-discipline art venue that aspires to showcase and promote various artistic endeavors with outreach to painters, sculptors, musicians, video, performance, installation artists.
MAS hosts the artwork of local artists and artists from the NY Metropolitan area and other cities.
MAS seeks to create a dialogue with issues of contemporary art practices to encourage, support and expand creativity and self-expression. To create an environment in which the arts flourish and enrich the quality of life.
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