“The path of painting is narrow but its destinations are wide and expansive.”
This opening line of Sarah Flohr’s statement about her work at the Shimo Center for the Arts is apt. Her show of paintings unfolds like a travelogue into imagined lands and exotic dreamscapes.
Although Flohr has been a professor of painting at California State University, Sacramento, for years, her work is infrequently shown here, making this show a rarity.
Shortly after getting her M.F.A. from Yale University, she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to work and study in France, and most of her exhibition record has been in Europe and Russia. She has collaborated with sound artists to create landscape installations as well as room-size sculptural installations. She works within a global context. There is nothing regional to Flohr’s narrative works. They are singularly odd, outliers in the well-trod field of regionally recognized figurative aesthetics.
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The format of Flohr’s painting is relatively long, narrow and horizontal. Each work comprises three abutted panels that create one 12 by 36 inches. The shape of the work tends to encourage left to right reading, like a horizontal scroll. Despite painterly passages of pure lyrical beauty, the work throws off discordant notes by abrupt changes in palette, compositional scale or constructed space. Flohr asks us to confront our taste for the familiar. She challenges us to not skim the surfaces passing bite-size judgments. Not only do her paintings take us on journeys into mythical geographies, they also prompt sojourns into our individual aesthetic mindsets.
Flohr populates her paintings with evocations of nature, buzzing worlds of birds and beasts, oceanic creatures, textile or wallpaper patterns, primordial geologies and the bridges and temples of Western and Eastern civilizations. She comingles empty temples or gazebos with birds and floating fish as if humankind has vacated the world, returning it to a depopulated landscape of bucolic gardens.
Her locales are exotic and visionary. “Vladimirskaya Oblast,” 2012-13, the name of a Russian state near Moscow, is bracketed with a red, flowerlike crab on the left and dragon and architectural motifs on the right. In the middle ground a winding road leads us on a rapturous walk into deep space. Faint, hazy structures emerge in the distance like some 19th-century Russian Oz. Virtually all of Flohr’s work draws from a Romantic communion with nature.
The symbolic imagery of “Maison Caree” (2012-13), “Last October Evening” (2016) and “Morning Glory” (2014-16) invokes classical themes of spiritual utopias and Arcadian groves. Their tableaus of statuary, coiling vines and animal life present allegories of transcendence and transformation. Snakes are suspended in a trancelike stillness, unburdened with gravity. Time feels stopped while we gaze into chimerical evocations of otherworldly grottoes. Given the long, horizontal format of her paintings, they beg to become large murals. Their modest scale lends them qualities of the claustrophobic, as if the flora and fauna are trapped in terrariums and aquariums with no place to go or to grow.
The surfaces of Flohr’s paintings are thinly worked and dry, very much in contrast to their depiction of lush foliage and watery eddies. Her rich narratives are what drive the work, not the expressive physical properties of paint. Yet Flohr is an eccentric and disquieting colorist. Color is a crucial character that pivots from sweet peachy pinks to yellows the color of bile. She prefers color to hover in a gauzy state that neither ingratiates with overt petitions to beauty nor comes to a screeching cacophonous halt with deliberate slabs of dissonant color. Flohr’s is a contemporary Shangri-La, equivocal and contingent.
Trade Wind – Sarah Flohr
When: 1-5 p.m Thursdays-Saturdays through Saturday, Dec. 3
Where: Shimo Center for the Arts, 2117 28th St., Sacramento
Information: 916-706-1162, shimogallery.com