The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2014

All Issues
MAR 2014 Issue


On View
January 12 – February 16, 2014
New York

What does it mean, now, in an age of public spectacle and private surveillance, to paint pictures of domestic life? Has that word—domestic—already prodded you to the next review? It is a term so loaded, so heavy with the dueling stones of feminist theory and conservative conformity.

Clare Grill, “Fan,” 2013. Oil on Linen, 10 × 11 ̋. Courtesy of the artist and Soloway.

Clare Grill is a prolific painter whose work has quietly posed this question for years. As she continues to produce increasingly scrupulous work, her relationship to domestic inquiry has grown more implicit. A few years ago her paintings depicted children in dreamlike whirlwinds and still lifes of blankets and lace. More recently, she has turned her eye toward the history of craft with a series titled “Samplers,” named for the swatches of fabric traditionally embroidered by young girls learning needlepoint. Grill’s “Samplers” vibrate with crowded registers that evoke their antique counterparts; as works on paper, they are filled with shaky letters, decorative motifs, and sporadic patterns. Examples from this series were (unfortunately) not on view in Comb, her recent solo show at Soloway in Williamsburg. Instead, the show shifted focus onto the next stage of her artistic progression: a carefully plotted step toward abstraction.

In Comb, the viewer was greeted by 11 condensed, impactful paintings, some filled to the brim with large, vaguely representational forms, others entirely abstract. “Fan”(2013), measuring a tight 10 × 11 inches, is a dark, mountainous shape set against a background of pale, baby blue. Equally striking is “Bitten” (2013), in which two arachnidan formsmirror one another against a sea of pastels. In both, Grill has selected a single dominant shape from her earlier “Samplers” series, and magnified the form until any representational reference has become invisible. Here, Grill has let go of the decorative image, and the paintings gain strength from this distance. Yet with their history buried within, they remain, intrinsically, depictions of domestic life.

This practice of careful, close study extends beyond the subject matter to the material interaction of paint and surface. Though there are multiple layers, we see the depth of only one. The paint is carefully and sparsely applied, then repeatedly sanded; quite often, the texture of the linen peeks through. In “Driftwood” (2013), muted bands of color appear on the surface like thick, wooly threads pressed flat. The paintings feel well-worn, the workings of an artist pushing through to her roots as a craftsman.

All of this—the artist’s material intentionality, her subject matter, even the fact that her studio is in her home—echoes and extends the tradition of craft. And though abstract, the paintings in Comb feel deeply personal, as if they were made by a human being thinking about the mortality of customs and skin. When painting the fragments of a bygone life, perhaps abstraction is the most truthful approach.

Clare Grill, “Bitten,” 2013. Oil on Linen, 11 × 10 ̋. Courtesy of the artist and Soloway.

I’ve carried one of my great-grandmother’s samplers through six different apartments; a talisman in my sock drawer. In the intricate patterns, I see the joy and skill of the hand, the tenderness of her world, and the angst of perpetuating bloodlines. Along the bottom, in tiny x’s, she signed her work with crimson thread: Rosa Röhrer. It was 1902, and this sampler was required for her high school graduation.

Grill’s paintings could not bare all of this weight, nor do they claim to. Instead, they face us as tiny, saturated swatches of history. She has gathered them all under the emblem of a  “comb,” an object that has remained through the centuries a symbol of beauty, pain, femininity, and class. It is a deep history that the artist has chosen to excavate, one that will continue to enrich and embolden her work.

348 S. 4th St., Williamsburg.


Sara Christoph

Sara Christoph is a former Managing Director of the Brooklyn Rail.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2014

All Issues