Grey concrete floor, splattered with paint, whitewashed brick walls; a room that seems to twist and turn, a layout that almost makes sense. Vibrant paintings stacked on the walls, some in progress, activate the space. In the middle foreground, a self-portrait of the artist stepping back from her easel to look at what she has been working on. Around her, beloved pets, either comfortably lounging or gazing with lazy interest at the artist, add to the intimacy of the scene.
As a Philadelphian, I have become familiar with Sarah McEneaney’s work and her presence locally, due to both her involvement in the The Reading Viaduct Project and her now iconic murals. Her latest exhibition at Locks Gallery, Trestletown, offers a generous selection of her work, from intimate self-portraits of the artist in her studio, to panoramic views of the city. Trestletown is the name of one of the many ‘pockets’ of Philadelphia, the artist’s long time neighborhood, siting anxiously between Center City and the oft-disregarded zones north of Vine Street.
Using the old technique of egg tempera on wood, McEneaney creates detailed, colorful paintings that stand at the crossroad between autobiography and affectionate portraits of the city. Even though her work has a constant presence in Philadelphia’s art scene, one never tires of it: her fresh, honest, unencumbered narrative and her dedication to active and faithful citizenship and civic conscience make her work constantly relevant.
Stacked buildings, stacked neighborhoods, the city unfolding. The viaduct makes its way through the city, defunct. This is Philly: red brick buildings with long windows and flat roofs, abandoned warehouses. Old churches wedged throughout the neighborhoods, between row houses and funeral homes, creeping stone and marble oddities, break the rigid square patterns of the architecture. Viewed from afar, as in Trestletown, North from Goldtex, or in Trestletown, 10th and Hamilton 10th Floor, Philadelphia seems to be made of Lego’s and building blocks, a miniature city where you can move and re-place the buildings, the railroad tracks, the city hall, a few trees or a whole playground. Perhaps this is how we would like it to be – urbanistic projects will be “approved” so much faster!
In Trestletown, 13th and Noble, the trees in bloom add to the surreal quality of her paintings, an awkward sense of hope – as if we do not know what to do with this hope, or where to place it. The figure – another self-portrait – lying on its back, seems to be at the same time liberated, looking freely towards the sky, as well as engulfed by the city.
Sarah McEneaney ‘s work reminds me of the dream like imagery in a Magritte or a de Chirico painting, a constructed reality with perfectly white clouds on a vibrant blue sky, a red building, the dome of a church, a train passing by, a dog in the middle of an abandoned railroad track overgrown with weeds and thistle, and a figure on a swing attached to a rusty railroad catenary. Yet this ‘constructed reality’ is nothing less than reality. Perhaps McEneaney is herself a dreamer, and an optimist who sees a future for her city through the thick overgrown weeds, or the boarded up neighborhoods.
McEneaney places herself (even if just through the depiction of her dog Trixie) at the heart of each of her paintings. Yet her work is not necessarily a complex self-portrait, but a mark of herself, a footprint part of the city. She paints her impressions and experiences, and the place as part of herself. She makes it clear in her subject and her narrative that she is committed to her beloved Philly.
Images courtesy of Locks Gallery