Playing hide and seek with the viewer, Sabina Klein’s gorgeously colored, full-spectrum paintings are densely packed with a trove of shapes and images, with scarves and swirls of gauzy hues, curtaining darker shades beneath, their surfaces smooth in areas, smudged and gritty in others. Layers of space seem to shift as you look, like tectonic plates cracking open as creatures both mysterious and mundane fly out from her works’ fathomless depths. Are they mythological beasts? Apparitions? Or are they more familiar mammals, fish, fowl, and humans transmogrified? All these images and colors are tossed about in free-fall, in free association, as if spin-cycled, (except of course it is all carefully choreographed, with the skill of a long time practitioner who is a master of her craft.) And, as in any turbulence, nothing stays still, so what you see as one thing becomes something else, in a perpetual, kaleidoscopic metamorphoses that is in synch with a flux that is universal, multiversal.
Klein says that she is inclined toward art that makes a strong statement, an inclination that is evident in her own work. She has also sought out women artists as mentors and models. Louise Nevelson was an early influence with whom she worked in the 1980s and who showed her what it meant to be an independent woman artist at a time when successful women artists were still a rarity. But while Klein has no doubt admired Lee Krasner and Joan Mitchell, she also seems to come out of a history of colorists, symbolists and fantasists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, Robert Delaunay, Odilon Redon, Henri Rousseau, and Edward Hicks, among others. Abstract and representational, sophisticated and naïf, it is a compellingly reimagined version of symbolism and surrealism.
A naturally gifted colorist who makes it all look easy—it is not—she has been a printmaker of note who established her own printmaking studio, working with eminent artists throughout the years, learning much from them, she said. She also has learned from printmaking, applying many of its techniques to her paintings, and the reverse. But are these paintings? They seem more a mix of genres, like much contemporary work, flush with an array of mediums in addition to paint such as watercolor, ink, pencil, pastels, and more. Usually on paper, it’s a support she prefers and is joined in that preference by more and more artists of late.
Pick any work of hers and be prepared to spend a long time with it. Take Midsummer Night’s Dream (2015), for instance. It is named for Shakespeare’s eternally enchanting comedy about fairies, mismatched lovers, trickeries, jealousy, love potions (aka drugs!), and much, much more before the eventual happy resolutions. In Klein’s work, its magic is conveyed through color. Her shimmering fairyland is evoked through tender greens, a sweet patch of pink, the rosiness dabbed throughout for good measure, as well as other pastels. The luminous, light-hearted hues conjure fairy folk while the more earthy tones suggest less exalted characters. But within that magic kingdom, characteristically, there are also less benign, more feral, rodent-like fauna, some with hunted, haunting eyes. Veering from Shakespeare to more pernicious realities, it made me think of the brilliant opening sequence in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) where zooming beneath the verdant blandishments of innocent-looking green lawns, there are life-and-death battles being waged, similar to what is beneath the pastoral shades of Klein’s work.
Her diptych Disbelief and Carnage (2016), capitalizing on that theme, is more unambiguously dark, as are the colors (for instance, the dystopian blacks and blues, a splattering of crimson and rust like blood stains) and the images (a faceless person holding what might be a baby contrasted with a bemused, cherubic child, or cadres of fierce, ghoulish men with blackened, perhaps goggled eyes brandishing weapons). The title calls up the dispiriting images and headlines that are now our daily fare, greeting us with never-ending stories about combat, suicide bombings, refugees drowned at sea, ethnic cleansings, and other horrifying stories of atrocities and devastation perpetrated by humans on humans. Civilization, as we once imagined it, seems to have vanished, to be replaced by Hobbesian conflict zones. This, too, is part of Klein’s encompassing vision. It is a point of view that sees reality and the human condition as a jumble of contradictions and complexities in which hope and beauty, despair and horror co-exist, the former all the more precious in the wake of the latter. -Lilly Wei
Lilly Wei is a New York-based art critic, independent curator and journalist.