Have you ever thought you saw a face in a slice of toast? Or rabbit ears in a cloud? Staring at anything long enough can create that effect—undulating grains in wood become mountains, patterns in a popcorn ceiling transform into entire hieroglyphic battle scenes. Spending time with Barbara Sternberger’s series of paintings, “Emanating,” at Elizabeth Leach Gallery feels something like that.
In each installment, her smudgy, finger-painting-like brushstrokes obscure complex layers of colors, shapes, and symbols. As such, getting to the bottom of each painting’s hidden meaning requires trying to look past it, or through it, to uncover another painting behind the painting—as if each of those finger-width brushstrokes represent an effort to smear, erase, conceal.
In the aftermath of an event like the COVID-19 pandemic, sitting with and sorting through this kind of abstract art feels like an oddly familiar experience. Like an activity I’m already accustomed to doing, in between months and months of uncertainty. For example, have you ever caught yourself staring out the window, wondering if the breeze in the trees might, by some miracle, answer all your questions? Well, when I do that, the breeze both does and doesn’t. Speaks and doesn’t speak. Part of the fascinating effect of Sternberger’s work is that it blurs the boundary between meaning and feeling—in her paintings, the only meaning that matters is feeling. So, as much time as I spent with Sternberger’s work, trying to understand what it meant—what it was—the thing I came to instead was a thorough knowledge of what it felt like to do so: to sit, to watch, to wonder.
The first thing I noticed in the upper right-hand corner of Pathways No. 11 (2011), for instance, were two eyes, a nose, and a surprised—or sad or concerned—brow. This face is buried in the background, almost invisibly so; but it’s the kind of face you can’t unsee once you see it. The presence of this face means the two scribbly clouds of white below this hidden face have to be a chest. It also means the gray, black, and beige scribbly somethings below the chest are either the figure’s pubic hair or someone else’s head, resting in their lap.
As with every piece in this exhibition, however, I remain unconvinced that this painting is of anything at all. Each patch of color could mean anything, not to mention the massive sea of color in which each patch swims. After looking and looking, then realizing I’m unable to determine anything determinable, recognize anything recognizable, my mind slumps into a non-start. Sternberger’s works are up to something—that much I’m sure of. It’s the not knowing exactly what that makes “Emanating” so interesting.
Pathways No.14 (Continuum) (2021) is another work that produces this unplaceable, unsettling feeling of non-recognition. In the bottom left of this canvas, a red Swedish Fish, perhaps, roasts over a crucifix-shaped fire, with two large rocks onlooking. Or, perhaps, a Boeing 747, crudely painted, comes ‘round for a landing, amidst a blizzardy storm. Or, perhaps, those diagonal-ish blocks, the glowing red behind them, are being taken into the arms of a big white figure—fog, winter, a bear, a ghost.
It’s Pathways No. 21 (2021) that lets me feel, for a moment, like I’ve landed somewhere. At first glance, the stringy arm of gold, which reaches across the canvas from above—the hand of God—like a fish hook, dangling, seems to be the exact kind of “action,” decision, actionable decisiveness I’m looking for. And then there is the strip of orange on the right of the canvas, peeking out from behind the flurry of white, to remind me there is more—a curtain to be pulled open. And then there is that section of white—near the top, across which our arm of God reaches—which has been so sloppily filled in, it makes me wonder if the whiteness that dominates the foreground of so many of Sternberger’s paintings is doing its job. At this point, I take a few steps backwards: Is it background or foreground? And if it’s foreground, what’s the background? Has it hidden other things? Obstructed them from view? Or is the whiteness the point? Is the whole point that I’ve missed the point, even with it staring right at me?
In the end, as much as it’s possible, Pathways No. 9 (Primary) (2021) settles the debate. A red jar swings on two strings, which want very badly to disappear into the white. Behind it, its own shadow pretends to be 3-dimensional. A gold bar, not quite connected to anything, supports the red jar as it swings. And I am reminded, after narrating this scene as sensibly as I can manage, that Sternberger’s paintings have eluded me, once again. These subtle, diligent, and individual paintings in “Emanating” emanate something with an agency all its own.
Instead of answering any of my questions, these artworks instead suggest a few of their own, such as What are you looking for, when you look at art, anyway? What are you expecting art to do? And if it doesn’t do it, what are you going to do about it?
In a time and place where so much else is up in the air—race, gender, community, purpose—I wonder if the answer to these questions might have a grounding effect. After all, if Sternberger’s art is simply a gesture of emanation—of making art that bleeds off the canvas and into the out-of-bounds regions of its viewer’s imagination—then perhaps post-COVID life is allowed to be the same thing: something alive, something feeling, something to be felt.
Elizabeth Leach Gallery is located at 417 NW 9th Avenue and is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:30 AM to 5:30 PM. “Emanating” is on view at the gallery through June 4th.