May 172024

“New body, new body”, 2024, Oil and graphite on linen

“Our family portrait/ Dancing over the town”, 2024, Oil and graphite on linen

“In Bed” 2024, and “The world was different when Leonard painted Emily”, 2024, Oil and graphite on linen

“I love basketball”, 2024, Oil and graphite on linen

Tanya Merrill’s exhibition, Watching women give birth on the internet and other ways of looking, at 303 Gallery explores the way we look at the world today while referencing classical imagery from the past. What has changed in the way we see ourselves, our place in society, and our place in time? How much has changed because of self documentation and the internet? All of these questions feel even more prevalent now with technology and environmental issues moving at an accelerated pace.

From the press release-

True to her propensity for a cyclical and narrative installation, the show begins and ends with the creation of life. Each painting represents a diverse point of interest and concern to the artist— sexuality and ideas of fertility, the natural world and the fraught state of the environment, and the broader implications of contemporary technology, sports, and religion on the artist’s experience as a woman today.

The scale of the subjects in each canvas approximate life, creating a one-to-one perspective when standing in front of, say, a tree trunk, a cat perched on a fish tank, or a man admiring himself with a basketball. One work shows a trompe l’oeil stack of papers illustrating a 15th century manuscript: an early representation of a woman’s fertility cycle in relation to the stars. The modes for distributing images have changed, but the need to see them has not—jump ahead 800 years and the show’s namesake painting frames the edge of a computer screen, documenting the recent phenomenon of sharing one’s birthing story and corresponding photographs publicly on the internet.

Humans have always employed tools for looking. The earliest manufactured mirrors were made from volcanic glass in Turkey and date some 8000 years ago, the invention of the telescope advanced our understanding of Earth’s place in the cosmos, a phone now captures our own image with a recent poll finding 92 million selfies are taken every day around the world: the Allegory of Sight and mythology of Narcissus regenerates.  In I love basketball, a naked man gazes affectionately at himself in the mirror. Coyly, he holds a basketball in front of his own genitalia; pensive yet playful, he engages the long tradition of masculinity in sports seen throughout art history. Across the gallery, a pregnant woman is doubled in the frame and photographs her changing body. The technology she clutches, perhaps soon to be obsolete, will be inextricably linked to the start of the 21st century.

The North American cecropia moth is seen on its host plant, a white birch tree, one of the few plants a Cecropia larva can eat. A recent report found dramatic rates of decline that may lead to the extinction of 40% of the world’s insect species over the next few decades. And with a single nest of baby birds needing up to 9,000 caterpillars before they are ready to fledge, the looming demise and precarity of our food chain is blatant. Merrill is compelled to paint the species that are still here, a record that they really did live before they died. The ecologist David Wagner says of the insect decline, “… We don’t know if it’s an apocalypse or Armageddon.”

In Our family portrait/ Dancing over the town, three skeletons– two human and one dog– are seen romping joyfully, even in death. The couple, winged and facing eternity together, point to religious imagery from a 17th century wall tomb, while the surrounding landscape references the art movements of Europe which inspired the Hudson River School Painters— an homage to the place this exhibition was made. Merrill’s studio in the Hudson Valley can be seen nestled in the bottom left corner of the canvas.

This exhibition closes 5/18/24.

May 142024


Kris Lemsalu’s sculptures for One foot in the gravy at Margot Samel are well crafted explorations into life and death, using a lot of tongues. There’s a lot of humor in the work, and this levity is nice to see in the galleries- especially in our current times.

The press release is interesting too-

One should acknowledge, with infinite joy, the fact of being alive. We should celebrate our existence and recognize its fragility in every moment. It’s easy to forget, to get distracted by mundane circumstances of our day-to-day life. On the other hand, life’s impermanence may induce panic, an all-encompassing fear that leaves us searching for answers. Still, we are resilient to becoming just another customer at Café Gratitude, its slogan ringing in our ears like a mosquito — What Are You Grateful For? Baruch Spinoza introduced the concept of conatus, which illustrates the internal drive of every being to persevere in its existence. The conatus is inherent to every substance; it is the engine that propels life. However, older philosophies get boiled down to artificially made bite-sized snacks at Café Gratitude — Live Laugh Love — pushing us to habitually flee from quick, feel-good moments.

Celebrating life doesn’t seem to intimidate Estonian artist Kris Lemsalu. Her work emphasizes, with absolute honesty, life and its different stages. This direct form of communication is not new to the artist. In 2019, she presented the work Birth V – Hi and Bye at the Venice Biennale which was an unmediated exploration of cycles relating to birth, life, death, and (fortunately) rebirth. Lemsalu continues her celebratory, inquisitive, and pagan journey in her exhibition at Margot Samel. We are welcomed with a grand altar inscribed with “VITA”, each letter created with an anthropomorphic character that references Baubo, a figure from Greek mythology associated with vitality and renewal, famed for making Demeter laugh in her most tragic moment. This figure often recurs in Lemsalu’s work, appearing with a jaw (or vulva) as a head, wearing a pair of cargo pants with tongues leaning out from its utilitarian pockets.

Tongues multiply in various sizes and formats throughout the space. Sometimes they are raised like the bright flag of a grand country, other times they rest on a rocking chair, contemplating life. The tongue is a familiar symbol in Lemsalu’s work. The artist often correlates the body part to the Hindu deity Kali, a controversial figure, who in the ecstasy of an uncontrolled dance, extended her great tongue to drink the blood of demons, resulting in a triumph over negative forces. Kali’s tongue is a symbol that evokes both laughter and fear, simultaneously bestowing life and death, creation and destruction.

When we enter the world of Lemsalu’s work, our experience functions as a ritual. Each work acts as a rite that celebrates our conatus and the perseverance of our existence, shamelessly celebrating our fragility and the passage of time, commemorating life with flowers, with one foot deep into the gravy.

Enrique Giner de Los Ríos

May 132024

“A beautiful figure without a tongue”, 2024, oil and pencil on canvas

“A beautiful figure without a tongue”, 2024, oil and pencil on canvas (detail)

“Open Season”, 2024, oil and pencil on canvas

“Open Season”, 2024, oil and pencil on canvas (detail)

“Where our love once lay, a dark and tortured jungle grew”, 2023, oil and pencil on canvas

“Where our love once lay, a dark and tortured jungle grew”, 2023, oil and pencil on canvas (detail)

A sense of foreboding looms over the paintings in Sanam Khatibi’s exhibition We Wait Until Dark at P.P.O.W gallery. In the details are smaller skeletons, ritual objects, and dead animals blood soaks the ground. Life and death are personified in both the figures and the natural surroundings. Flowers bloom or wilt, bones are scattered, a hummingbird shares a moment with a skeleton in one painting while a dead bird lies on the ground in another. Khatibi’s works have many potential meanings, like their art historical predecessors, and leave it to the viewer to come to their own conclusions.

From the press release-

…People who devote their lives to art can often cite an event that placed them on their destined path. Among the earliest memories Belgian artist Sanam Khatibi recalls is the day she discovered a book on Hieronymous Bosch left out on the table by her mother. She was five. That one might advance from consuming the rapturous reproductions of The Garden of Earthly Delights at such a young age to painting expansive, primal scenes of a troubled Paradise is one excellent example of artistic “fate.”

In Khatibi’s paintings and sculptures, the veil between desire and restraint, life and death, and the natural and spirit worlds proves thin. Again and again, the artist returns to t­he figure of a nude goddess navigating a verdant, savage land beyond the protective scrim of “civilization.” In the absence of technology, politics, bills, e-mail, and even clothing, she exhibits her most feral qualities for survival: devouring, eating, attacking, killing, and hunting. Khatibi’s subjects are perennial (desire, seduction, domination, submission), and her references to allegorical forms are extensive (17th-century Dutch still life vanitas, the motif of Death and the Maiden, antiquarian amulets, and anthropological relics), all channeled into displays of human folly and erotic obsession.

Paintings by Khatibi are full of expressions of voracity: for sex, earthly delights, experience, and transcendence, and what happens when you tempt the devil. In Where our love once lay, a dark and tortured jungle grew (2023), a fey skeleton seizes a beautiful maiden by the hair under a lightening blue sky –– a grotesque quid pro quo that recalls Lucas Cranach the Elders’ The Ill-Matched Couple (1553); or even Kawanabe Kyōsai’s Hell Courtesan (1831–1889). Decrepit and aging, his skull sprouts strawlike strands of hair, the last indication of vitality. In Open Season (2024), an Amazonian goddess places an intimate offering of amulets and animal sacrifices before a pool of water. There is a sense of reckless abandon: a human skull, a pomegranate cracked open, blood spilling over the cerulean earth––a feast for ravenous souls.

Khatibi’s Eden is repeatedly transformed into a Bosch-like tale of passionate, potentially fatal encounters (a locus amoenus turned upside down into a “locus terribilis”). In A beautiful figure without a tongue (2024), the skeletal personification of Death reappears. A maniacal grin spreads across his decaying face as he slinks away, clutching an ornate vase to his chest. Are these the spoils of Death to be hoarded in a cavernous underworld?

Throughout the exhibition, Khatibi faithfully intertwines two genres of painting (figurative landscape and still life), leaving seemingly ancillary details from one scene to reveal as sharp memento mori in another––as in Overnight Black Aphids Appeared, growing on the tips of the Sophora Sun King (2023). Here, the reappearance of skulls, amulets, and small creatures sans personnages gives the impression of a romantic sojourn set apart from the larger narrative. Each of Khatibi’s objects pulses into realism with near-scientific observation, appearing magnificent and fragile, possibly even forbidden. Placed against a velvety black ground, they fall into shadow as if pulled amorously into the afterlife. –Lola Kramer

Also included in the exhibition are several smaller works, like the one pictured below. In these darker paintings the details stand out against their black background, but the mystery of their meaning remains.


“Overnight Black Aphids Appeared, growing on the tips of the Sophora Sun King”, 2023 oil on canvas