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Sherrie Wolf at Russo Lee: Wrong in just the right way

Like Cézanne's and Wayne Thiebaud's, Wolf's sensory paintings seduce the ordinary by upending our assumptions about reality.

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Sherrie Wolf, “A Few of My Favorite Things,” oil on canvas, 51 x 90 inches, 2021. Russo Lee Gallery.

Perception. Deception. Confusion. Illusion.

Why do Sherrie Wolf’s still lifes of flowers, fruit, vases and other commonplace objects, now on exhibit at Russo Lee Gallery and the Jordon Schnitzer Family Foundation warehouse, somehow satisfy more deeply than the real thing? Why do they mesmerize, why do I ponder them instead of merely glancing their way with a faint smile?

A wide, hand-painted bowl anchors our kitchen counter, mounded with fruit. A few rosy apples, a bunch of bananas, a couple of lemons. Avocados and mangos are in rotation. I take care to remove the little stickers, grumbling to myself that there are no barcodes in a Cézanne still life. Nearby stands a contrasting bouquet that Barbara arranged in a blue lusterware vase that caught our eyes years ago. The flowers change, but a spray of blooms reliably resides in this spot. This composition of fruit and flowers signifies home, warming my spirit whenever I enter the room.

So, who needs a still life painting: a mere facsimile? Flowers with no scent, fruit with no flavor? 

It is the artifice of art—as the work of human imagination and a creative hand—that gives it a key to the viewer’s mind. But mere craft does not make art. That takes an experience that unsettles our expectations and throws us off balance. The compositions on my kitchen counter please me, but it takes discomfort to acutely engage me. Through much of art history, still life paintings seldom did that. They were considered merely decorative, trivial representations of the ordinary. We know tulips and oranges and Champagne flutes, and when we see what we expect, we stop observing and let our assumptions take over.

Wolf doesn’t let that happen. A first reaction to Wolf’s images is to marvel at how “real” they are, until you grasp what a trickster she is. Goblets glow as if lit from within; silverware invents its own reflections; cherries are glazed like porcelain—and the laws of perspective are upended. She is deceiving us, leading us to perceive something more exciting then real.

Paul Cézanne, “The Basket of Apples,” ca. 1893, oil on canvas, 65 x 80 cm, Art Institute of Chicago.

In her way, Wolf is pursuing a license from Cézanne, a master at confusing and discomfiting the viewer. He wanted us to experience what he was sensing, not what he was seeing, and twists of perspective were among his tools. In The Basket of Apples from 1893 (above), while repetitive globes of fruit draw our attention, we barely notice that the sides of the table don’t line up. Defying gravity, the left side droops and the wine bottle tips. It is as if we are seeing the composition from several angles or, even more alarming, as if there is more than one of us (one of whom may be intoxicated) standing in different parts of the room. Cézanne further confounds us by placing in the center of the image a napkin formed like a mountain range of snowy peaks and valleys: a winter landscape incongruously plopped on a table.  

Some of Cézanne’s disorienting tricks are evident in the paintings of Wayne Thiebaud, who died last month at 101. Known best for his images of repeated pastel confections, Thiebaud also violated the laws of perspective. In Pies, Pies, Pies from 1961 (below), for example, the wedges of pie in the rear are larger than those in the foreground. Tempted, you are pulled deeper into the painting to reach for the greater reward, as if you were an older sibling pulling rank at the table.

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Wayne Thiebaud, “Pies, Pies, Pies,” 1961, oil on canvas, 20 x 30 inches. Crocker Art Museum, gift of Philip L. Ehlert in memory of Dorothy Evelyn Ehlert)

Thiebaud’s subject matter is seductive, almost sexy: layer cakes, ice cream sundays, and cream pies. In Pies, Pies, Pies even the shadows are a delicious blueberry hue, and the wedges repeat with a hypnotic rhythm, like Cezanne’s apples. Thiebaud unnerves us with mixed messages: His confections are benign symbols of birthdays and family outings, yet they also have a taboo quality with ominous implications. “Follow me” to a forbidden land, he coaxes, where excess is permitted, where there are no limits. “Go ahead, indulge, have another.” Yet, we know what he is offering: tomorrow’s regret.

Sherrie Wolf, “From Vermeer to Cecilia Beaux” (detail), oil on canvas, 34 x 60 inches, 2021. Russo Lee Gallery.

Like Cézanne and Thiebaud, Sherrie Wolf sets our senses on high alert by showing us what cannot be. In From Vermeer to Ceclia Beaux (detail above), the laws of perspective are not just violated, they are inverted. The Tulip book recedes forward and the viewer impossibly becomes the vanishing point. We are disoriented in the way the dissonance in Brahms’ late chamber works throws us off balance and invites us to hear deeper into his complex score. Off balance, we are vulnerable to Wolf’s deceptively detailed blossoms and teacups seducing like a fast-talking con-man whose wares are too good to be true but too alluring to be resisted. Our real is no longer good enough; we want to immerse in Wolf’s hyper-vivid world, a place we fear we may not be able to leave and would not want to in any event. It is too exciting . . . like a garden of forbidden fruit. And we know how that ended.

Apples, pies, and goblets. Cézanne, Thiebaud, and Wolf each have the capacity to seduce with the ordinary, by upending our assumptions about reality. They invite us to a fantasyland where the rules are suspended, our lusts are aroused, and we can indulge our sensory appetites.

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You can enter Wolf’s magic realm at two shows this month:

  • An exhibit of Wolf’s recent work is at Russo Lee Gallery, titled A Closer Look, and will run through January 29.
  • A retrospective of Wolf’s work is at the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation exhibition space, 3033 N.W. Yeon Ave. Portland. It will be open to the public on January 15 (between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.). The artist will be in attendance, signing copies of the just published Sherrie Wolf: A Retrospective. For more information, contact Julia Oswald at juliao@jordanschnitzer.org. 

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This essay was first published by Portland artist David Slader in his art letter to subscribers, and is republished here with permission.

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A show of David Slader’s paintings, covering a ten-year span of his work, is currently at the Ford Building Gallery, 2505 SE 11th Ave., Portland. Although, due to Covid, the building is locked, David would be glad to meet you there and show you around. Please contact him at dslader46@gmail.com. You can follow him on instagram at: https://www.instagram.com/davidsladerart/

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Photo Joe Cantrell

David Slader is an Oregon painter, digital artist, sculptor, and photographer. His youthful art ambitions were detoured by an almost forty-year career as a litigator, child-advocate, and attorney for survivors of sexual abuse. Although a Portland resident, David's studio is in the Coast Range foothills, along an oxbow of the Upper Nehalem River, where he alternates making art with efforts to reforest his land. In the Fall, a run of Chinook salmon spawn outside his studio door.

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