Sarah McEneaney at Gallery Schlesinger, Ltd.

Sarah McEneaney, VCCA VA 9 (2002), egg tempera on gessoed wood, 36″ x 48″; courtesy Gallery Schlesinger Ltd.

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There are plenty of nits to pick in the art of Sarah McEneaney, the subject of an exhibition at Gallery Schlesinger. Ms. McEneaney, a figurative painter based in Philadelphia, employs egg tempera on panel as a form of autobiography.

Look at the paintings and you’ll get to know her home, her dog, her two cats, her neighborhood (Callowhill/Chinatown), her political inclinations (anti-Bush) and the artist herself. Is there any aspect of Ms. McEneaney’s day-to-day existence that isn’t depicted? We see her napping, bathing at the Boulder Hot Springs, hanging out with friends, trespassing on private property and happily ensconced in the studio. The unapologetic, diaristic tone brings a prickly strain of intimacy to the fore.

What are the nits to pick? Ms. McEneaney’s art isn’t particularly fluent. You can’t call her a folk painter-Ms. McEneaney’s sophistication with composition, color and surface gives the lie to the label-yet the pictures are prone to the genre’s limitations, in particular an uneasiness with navigating pictorial space.

Planes and angles are tilted, stilted and awry; objects don’t always “sit” within the composition. Textures bedevil the work. In Ms. McEneaney’s depiction of the studio, paint splatters on the floor sit on the surface of the painting, rather than in the image itself. Her handling of the human form is pinched and awkward.

Having rattled all that off, let me add that Ms. McEneaney is nonetheless an engaging and, at times, irresistible painter. You don’t need to buy into the myth that intensity of vision redeems shortcomings of form in order to acknowledge that sometimes myths are predicated in fact. Besides, Ms. McEneaney has enough control of her medium to invest it with psychological and, yes, pictorial necessity. When meticulously delineating each and every brick in a wall, she proves her artistic mettle, stubbornly hewing to fact rather than capitulating to obsession.

Ms. McEneaney’s art is steadfastly personal, yet not merely personal. It gets beyond the boundaries of self by embodying sensations we can all understand, or at the very least recognize. Ms. McEneaney may use painting as a forum for autobiography, but it is also, in an odd way, her means of escaping from it. This is tough work, fragile too, and, in the end, singularly compelling.

© 2004 Mario Naves

Originally published in the December 5, 2004 edition of The New York Observer.

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