Sinéad Breslin in Brooklyn Rail
By Louis Block
Seeing and remembering are at odds. Memories—if they are to be shared with others—are packaged in a specific way: flat, rectilinear, still. This fact is not contingent on photography; we have a natural tendency to break narratives up into stills. Just look at how we write stories: gerunds and continuous tenses build up to decisive action, plots advance through singular moments and not sustained processes. Experience is continuous and multidimensional. In translation, it loses those qualities.
This is a painter’s dilemma. To take a full visual experience and flatten it into a picture is like compressing an entire symphony into one loud, awful note. Naturally, compromises must be made. That struggle—of morphing the rounding peripheries and swiveling focus of a restless eye into a stable form—is mirrored in the alchemical wrangling inherent in the act of painting. It is a struggle perhaps first encountered in school when faced with a still life and the table upon which it rests, and the vertiginous feeling of measuring where the edges fall away. Hopefully, that struggle is never fully resolved. Even in Cézanne’s fractured vantage points, in Hockney’s optical distortions, in Rackstraw Downes’s lenticular horizons—the work of painting is visible, never polished.
That work is on full display in Sinéad Breslin’s recent paintings at Marc Straus. Breslin jigsaws scenes together with abandon: vantage points wander restlessly and textures overwhelm perspective. Each painting focuses on one figure, whose gaze often drifts past the viewer’s. Breslin seems less interested in depicting her figures than their settings; her figures, in turn, seem consumed by their environments.
Whether it is ennui or nostalgia, whatever plagues the characters in these compositions causes a visual overload: tile patterns, thin horizons, and creeping vegetation overwhelm Breslin’s canvases. In The Bowery (2018), the central figure is enveloped in a plaid wasteland: a café scene devolves into gridded abstraction. The composition is split into unruly quadrants, as if each patch of color was merely glimpsed as it sped past.
Arfus (2017) is a swirling psychodrama with no resolution. Its bespectacled protagonist stands rigid, faced with a vortex of painted patterns. Thick patches of brushwork encircle the figure, disrupting a scene so unassuming as to arouse suspicion: a table with roses and a meticulously arranged bowl of fruit. The Munchian abstraction contains suggestions of drama, but its surface is opaque and unyielding.
The best painting in the show is Sandpit (2018), which, in terms of its directness, represents a departure from the other works exhibited. A woman sits in a thick field of yellow, her only companions a miniature airplane and a red circle. She gazes off to our left. A pair of naked legs encroaches onto the yellow composition from above. That yellow, applied in alternating strokes, thick and thin, vertical and horizontal, weighs more heavily than the backgrounds of other paintings in the show. The woman’s gaze, too, is nuanced—is she pained, or struck by intense ennui? There is a searching present in this painting—both in the composition and the feeling of the brushwork—that is promising. I can sense the struggle of depiction, the wrestling with form and memory. Like a childhood sandpit, paintings hold our marks even after our escape, to be read and interpreted.
The review was originally posted on October 7, 2019 here.