by Maria Porges
There may be no figures in Sophie Treppendahl’s paintings, but their presence lingers everywhere you look. These lived-in interiors, bathed in warm light, are full of books, flowers, plants and comfortable furniture. With a single exception, though, they contain no people. Wine glasses and coffee mugs and the soft blue light of a television spilling across a night-time scene suggest that someone has just left the room. But really, a full cast of characters is still on stage, populating these interiors with the secret life that things have in the absence of their owners.
As such, the paintings read as self-portraits, evidenced by the many books present – either opened to images of other artists’ works or closed and stacked, revealing their titles. Being books, they have a bit of the vanitas still life about them, as do other things like candles, flowers and plants, all of which have traditionally stood for the
transience of life. Books can also symbolize knowledge. Here, they point to the painters who interest and influence Treppendahl. These include the living (Nicole Eisenman, Mamma Andersson, David Hockney, Kerry James Marshall, Hilary Pecis) and the dead (Matisse, Diebenkorn, David Parks and Frida Kahlo). Along with a laptop and charging cords that make several appearances, the artist’s extensive library reminds us of the privations of being shut in at home. Unable to go out and see art in person, we have gazed longingly at its ghosts on screens or on the pages of books and magazines.
Treppendahl often works from photographs, but invents freely as she goes along, painting and repainting a picture until her compositions and palette – idiosyncratic and magnetic — resolve to her satisfaction. This labor-intensive process can only be detected by examining the ridged pentimenti left behind by previous layers. In reproduction, though, these works look fresh and deceptively flat: more like Alex Katz than Henri Matisse.
Many paintings use the shallow space characteristic of the still life genre. Pill bottles, lotions and a toothbrush are arrayed on a shelf and crowd a bathroom sink in BathroomVanity. In Chili Crisp and Alex Katz, a plate of toast and eggs, the latter dotted with Chili Crisp from the jar nearby, share space on a table with several books. Despite the painting’s title, the most recognizable image in the scene is by Matisse. On the narrow console table in Living Room Bathers, the crowd of curios includes an N95 mask whose elastic straps drape gracefully over the edge of a table. That alone will make it easy to date this picture in years to come, as will the PCR test that appears to be stuck to a candle. Both the mask and the test remind us that such things will continue to be part of daily life, as common as candles or books.
Elsewhere in the show, there are more expansive views of rooms featuring walls covered with imaginary Vuillard-esque wallpaper patterns. A fireplace with mantel appears in several (After the Dinner Party; 27th Street; Living Room, Morning) in which pictures adorn the walls. Some, like the one seen in Livingroom Bathers, are “portraits” of her own paintings, but most seem to be photographs of friends or family members.
Treppendahl, 28, grew up in the tiny town of St. Francisville, Louisiana. After a decade away, she recently returned — not to her hometown, but to New Orleans. In a recent show, Living with my (white, Southern, racist) family history, she considered that past, but no such reckoning takes place here. The only exception might be the vaguely ominous Livingroom, Evening, though this mysterious painting also suggests the spaces conjured by illustrator Clement Hurd in his children’s classic Goodnight Moon.
The largest room portrayed (and the largest painting in the show) is Morning in the Studio. In some ways, it is the centerpiece of the show, the world around which the others revolve. It pictures a Matisse-ean space with (improbably) orange walls in which a scattering of open books and peeled-off nitrile gloves, a rolling chair and a plugged-
in laptop stand in for the artist, radiating her presence. The big wall that fills most of the composition features some of the works in this show, including a sketchy version of Morning in the Studio.
Treppendahl’s paintings, populated by familiar, often beloved objects and images, reveal how everyday life is intimate, even claustrophobic. But the studio — the room of the imagination– is expansive. That sketch, setting out her opening ideas, foretells all the possibilities to come.
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Sophie Treppendahl: “Homebody” @ Johansson Projects through June 18, 2022.
About the author:
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. Since the late ‘80s, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many now-defunct sites or magazines. The author of more than 100 exhibition catalog essays, she is a professor at California College of the Arts.