Sista Chapel by Natasha Wright
SFA Projects, 131 Chrystie St, New York, NY 10002
November 13, 2019, to December 15, 2019
By Nancy Elsamanoudi
The paintings on view in Natasha Wright’s show, Sista Chapel at SFA Projects, convey power with an erotic directness. These bold, exquisitely layered large-scale paintings lure the viewer to muse over the grumbling vibrations of murky, subterranean elements. These works call to mind myth, the underworld, sorcery, dark magic, ancient rituals, primordial energies, and impulses; a violent, dangerous world constantly on the brink of chaos.
Wright’s paintings are peopled with larger than life goddesses, coquettes, amazons and mythological and magical creatures. Her work taps into an imaginary space that collapses the difference between the ancient and the present. These threads that exist simultaneously are seamlessly brought together in the same painting: Cardi B and the Venus of Willendorf, Pac-Man and a sleeping pink nymph, an enormous unicorn smashed against the picture plane against a seafoam green background that at least partly mimics digital space or crouched monsters lurking in an open field at night.
The ambiguity at play in Wright’s paintings is compelling. Wright freely incorporates both abstract and figurative elements in a way that heightens the tension and the sensation of suspense in her work. Her work has a playful openness, a searching quality to it. She seems to allow forms to emerge intuitively.
The thick black lines she uses brings her figures into sharp focus, but then she also sharply crops her figures in a way that frustrates an easy read of them. Various body parts, such as the head, wings, legs, arms are cut off and often lie outside of the picture plane. The figures in Wright’s paintings are cropped as a means of intensifying a feeling—a sense of discomfort. Wright’s work fixates on sensation and the role of the body is central to her work. But the body in her work is not particularly idealized or sexualized. Instead, the body takes on a totemic function—it is more an archetype, a cultural coding of the vitality inherent in a human being.
At times, Wright’s work seems to also touch on death, the macabre and violence. Bodies and parts of bodies are distorted past the point of recognition; the figures writhe in pain. Wright seems to be exploring the precarious and fragile vulnerability often ascribed to the female experience. In Street Ophelia, for instance, a violently contorted female figure appears to be splayed on the ground.
Wright is clearly not interested in making pretty paintings—her paintings aren’t precious. The bodies in her paintings are frequently awkwardly contorted. Grey is often the predominant color and her limited palette of greys, pinks, black and green lend her paintings a gravitas, a weight as does the texture in her work.
Wright builds up the surfaces of her paintings by using a range of materials such as sand, glitter, glass beads, charcoal and black magnum with hand-made oil paint. There is a haptic, textural quality to her work. The resulting images tend to be suggestive; they seem to hint at a story involving an unfolding drama or possibly a moment of impending danger. She gives the viewer a fleeting glimpse into her world and imagination.
Wright’s work speaks to a fascination with darkness and Wright is tied to her feminist temperament. Wright repositions the female figure at the center by re-envisioning the feminine gaze and rethinking the importance of female agency. The adventuress, the seductress, the muse, the fallen or scorned women all become protagonists that motivate her studio practice. The painting When Black Swallows Red, for instance, looks like large swaths of leather mixed with latex, it is suggestive of the way black leather and latex might feel strapped tight against the skin and in doing so calls to mind straps, whips, and pain folded into pleasure.
Wright is drawn to the dark, mysterious and dangerous aspects of feminine power and the female experience. By focusing on the body as a vehicle of power and agency, Wright’s work seems to rebuff the so-called feminine virtues of purity, chastity, and modesty. This can be seen in Already a Saint, a painting of cropped thrusting forward, half-naked torso clothed in animal skins. Or The Swan, a painting that seems to be referencing, “Leda and the Swan.” In this painting, a bent and twisted sullied swan appears like a dark angel covered in volcanic ash flying into a lake.
These paintings speak to feminist concerns, but not in the way that is didactic. Wright seems to be most interested in what may be construed as threatening, destabilizing or emasculating about feminine power. This feminine power has traditionally sparked fear or has been seen as evil, unnatural and suspect, resulting in images of conniving hags and witches. Wright’s paintings attempt to reclaim and prize this “darkness” of female power by treating it like black gold—tapping into it as an energy source and an intuitively life-affirming way of knowing.