You could easily mistake the bright colors and animals populating Grace Munakata’s exuberant paintings as signifiers of whimsical emotion, tailor-made for the Easter-eve opening of her show at b. sakata garo. But in truth, Munakata’s paintings are less about resurrection than about things falling apart: homes, civilizations, landscapes and entire ecosystems. The beauty of her approach is that it doesn’t feel the least bit didactic. Whatever seriousness lies at the heart of her work is cloaked in a fascination with the joys of manipulating texture, color and form – all in a wide variety of media.
Her works combine plein air landscape techniques, abstract mark making and transparent schematic forms executed in loose, broad strokes. All of this, at first glance, is somewhat bewildering. But look closely and you see that her pictures describe familiar scenes with astonishing economy while at the same time obscuring definitive readings with an overlay of shapes, lines and smudges that create a palpable “push-pull” effect. Nearly all of the activity in these paintings occurs in a shallow depth of field, and what perspective Munakata does allow, she parcels out sparingly. This makes the pictures sometimes feel like mergers of several paintings.
That can make comprehension a bit tricky. It helps to know, for example, that one painting in the series, “Gleaners,” was partially inspired by "Suite Française," Irène Némirovsky’s posthumously discovered novellas about France under German occupation.
Specifically, it was a story about cats, as both amiable domestic creatures and outdoor predators, that Munakata saw as a metaphor for the extremes of human behavior in times of crisis. John Berger, who also wrote about the residual effects of war — and about the elastic nature of perception and morality — was an even bigger influence on Munakata when she undertook the series.
The most memorable painting, “Dispatch,” shows a howling dog surrounded by collapsed houses resting on ground that is cleaved by green fingers that protrude upward through the Earth’s crust. Its allusion to the root cause of the present financial crisis seems unmistakable. Similarly, the tri-part “Return Road” shows a dog fleeing a suburban estate littered with objects that might be discarded furniture. And in the alluring diptych, “Shape of a Pocket,” a pack of dogs is shown howling at the stars.
They could just be dogs, of course; but in the context of Berger’s writings, where animals’ superior sense of hearing and smell provide early warning signs, they seem to be surrogates for humanity — collectively shaking a fist at forces it can’t control. Likewise, the above-mentioned “Gleaners,” a cheery picture of cats frolicking in a pile of pastel-colored clothes, seems rather innocent until you re-read the title and really get it.
Suggestion is sometimes more powerful than description, and with Grace Munakata that’s certainly the case. Her unique deployment of painting’s arsenal of tricks, to both illuminate and obscure, makes an elegant case for the medium’s continued relevance.
Grace Munakata: through May 2 at b. sakata garo.