Grace Graupe-Pillard is best known for her shaped, cut-out paintings of street people that she adheres directly to the wall. Recently she has returned to a more conventional painting format. But her technique is still curious, starting with Photoshop and ending up on canvas -- though it gets her where she wants to go.
Graupe-Pillard's "Keyhole series", on view in her new show at Donahue/Sosinski, consists of quite large canvases that eye-pop with color and mind-bend with references to other painters and cultures. Their exuberance is reminiscent of sideshow banners or the kind of exhortatory hangings that are found at church revivals. These paintings are united by a pair of pictorial devices -- a black keyhole silhouette painted on the canvas and framing its imagery, and a Magrittean running-man silhouette that appears in many of the works.
Much of Graupe-Pillard's imagery is adapted from the works of painters ranging from Rembrandt and Brueghel to Frida Kahlo, evidence to long and thoughtful searches for passages with just the right metaphorical resonance. These appropriated sections are painted at large scale, and give the viewer the sense of being up on the scaffold in the Sistine Chapel, nose to nose with God. The final element in Graupe-Pillard's works is a hand-colored photographic blowup of a person (some are friends and family, others are models), placed in the center and foreground of the canvas. Why collage the photograph, rather than paint it? Light bounces off the colored photograph so that the subject's face literally glows, a testament to Graupe-Pillard's humanistic emphasis on the subject.
In Graupe-Pillard's Anatomy Lesson, a grim corpse from Rembrandt appears to be slashed open by the silhouette of a running man. Inside is an image of a female torso. This shadowing of life and sex with flight and death is almost too existential. In Pieta, a beautifully painted rendering of Bellini's Pieta is juxtaposed to a contemporary figure such that a hand-gesture appears onanistic, a sneaky device that somehow comes off as quite humanizing. In works like Temptation and Ganymede, Graupe-Pillard mines sprightly passages from voluptuous painters, using backgrounds as bouquets tossed in honor of the person in the photograph.
Like banners that proclaim wonders, hyperrealistic visages carved onto ethnic tombstones, icons held up in church or reliquaries placed in altars in cathedrals, these canvases proclaim permanent devotions and involve the oldest impulse of art-making -- to make loved ones immortal. In My Father's Last Photo, Graupe-Pillard again hails farewell to her father, a proud German Jew who left the Nazi Reich for a good long life in America. The pre-Nazi Europe of his youth is wistfully returned to him on his deathbed in the pleasingly melancholy landscape of Brueghel's Hunters in the Snow, flowing through and around him.
Grace Graupe-Pillard at Donahue/Sosinski, Oct. 9-Nov. 15, 1997, 560 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10012
ROBERT MAHONEY is an art critic.