One of the pleasures of my job is discovering artists new to me and falling in love with their work.
I had never heard of Jennifer Warpole, an artist based in Philadelphia, but when I walked into her solo show of oil paintings on panel and paper at b. sakata garo, I was hooked. I was immediately engaged by her searching and inventive approach to subject matter, her striking use of color, and her fresh and sensitive handling of the oil paint medium.
If I hadn’t been told she was from the eastern United States, I might have thought she was a Bay Area painter. The painterliness and subtle, searching palate of juicy, gestural nudes, such as “New House, Same Chair” and “Portrait, Then,” called up associations with the figurative paintings and drawings of Elmer Bischoff.
On the other hand, her thinly brushed, multilayered, improvisational “Tangle Performers,” an intriguing image of fishermen with tangled lines and enigmatic circus performers, made me think of works by Grace Munakata, a Berkeley artist who received her MFA from UC Davis and sometimes shows at Sakata’s elegant space.
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One also can see affinities with the paintings of Jennifer Pochinski, who brought Warpole’s work to Barry Sakata’s attention and will have a show of her own new works at the gallery later in the year.
As I moved through the show of mostly small and unpretentious works, other connections popped up: echoes of Edgar Degas in the awkward young ballerinas in “Practice”; the raw elemental quality of prehistoric cave paintings in the galloping horses in “After Cowtown”; overtones of German Expressionism in the harlequin-like figures emerging from darkness in “Circus Camp.”
That doesn’t mean her works are derivative. Instead, while she is well-versed in art history and painterly traditions (having an MFA from the Philadelphia Academy of Art), her paintings are distinctly her own. From the odd couple in “Road Trip” to an evocative image of a nude descending a ladder in “Jane’s House,” they offer vibrant, excitingly executed images.
I was struck by the subdued yet radiant light in “Fancy Hat Day,” in which a woman with a large hat pats the flank of a luminous, almost spectral horse. In strong light that eats away at their flesh, the horse and the woman, rendered in cool tones of blue, gray and green, are caught as if in stop-action motion.
It’s one of several strong pieces inspired by the Devon Horse Show in Pennsylvania. The formality of the horse show is a wonderful foil for Warpole’s gestural depiction of horses and riders in the Devon scenes and contrasts nicely with the rawly rendered equines in “After Cowtown.”
“Model’s Show” and “High Spire” are beguiling, diminutive works that demonstrate Warpole’s skill and wit. “Model Show” moves down from a vigorous background to a delicately delineated back view of a partially dressed woman in tones that range from blue-gray to rose to rich dark red. An incongruous, small image of a woman’s face appears on the wall she is turned to.
“High Spire” (perhaps a pun on the “high aspirations” of the quixotic figure depicted) gives us a delightful image of a circus performer, an aerialist or a tight-rope walker, jumping up and flapping his wings in an attempt to fly. Perhaps a Dadaist reference to Icarus or an homage to Antonin Artaud, it’s as charming as all get out.
The largest work in the show, “Yellow House Dancers,” a vibrant oil of inter-tribal dancers from Arizona, is impressive. Beautifully painted, it falls within the long tradition of paintings of American Indians and their culture, yet is decidedly contemporary in spirit.
Warpole’s work is a welcome addition to the Sacramento art scene and Barry Sakata should be thanked for introducing us to it.