Vicki Sher has been using a reduced visual vocabulary in her drawings for many years, combining simple line and color drawings with text to create oblique narratives. In her recent exhibition, Yes/No, she elaborates on this strategy, weaving a story, both personal and symbolic, of her Grandmother Pearl's post-stroke search for a descriptive language, based on her diminished capacity for speech. Sher integrates Pearl's story with one of the great modernist tropes in both painting and literature: the ability to describe and illustrate complex thinking through limited means.
The history of this type of art making is long: Malevich's "Black Square" (1915), James Joyce's Molly Bloom ("yesyesyes"), and, in music, Satie and Schoenberg. Gerhard Richter, no stranger to taking the personal out of painting, wrote, "The making of pictures consists of a large number of yes and no decisions and a yes decision at the end." Sher, in contrast to Richter's attempts to assassinate the author, brings in a wealth of personal touches in her drawing ("Untitled, Vase" ; "Untitled, Big Plant" ), which often has the delicacy of an Ellsworth Kelly, or even Matisse, with a trove of everyday trivial objects: ashtrays, empty glasses, shoes, socks, and so on ("Untitled, Shoes" , above). Over these drawings, Sher writes, "Yes Yes Yes" or "No No No Yes" or "Yes Yes Yes Yes No Yes Yes No," like some kind of Morse code, illustrating how Pearl asked for, described, or averred things. Personal, but also a metaphor for Sher's own aesthetic approach to picture making.
George Herriman, perhaps the greatest cartoonist to have ever blackened the funny papers, created the comic strip Krazy Kat, which chronicled the adventures of a cat (Krazy Kat), a mouse (Ignatz), and a police officer dog (Officer Pup) in the imaginary Coconino County. The oblique narratives of the story, along with the ambiguous genders, races, and nationalities of the characters (they spoke a mixture of American slang, Creole, French, Spanish, and Yiddish), allowed the reader space to interpret the tales and the imagery. The desert landscapes of Krazy Kat's Arizona town resembled old Star Trek sets -- arid, empty, and filled with enough space to let each viewer piece together the dialog and the characters based on individual perception of the story. This was Herriman's brilliance and, ultimately, most lasting influence on cartoonists and artists alike.
Sher achieves something of this in her drawings, letting the viewer combine the various detritus of her still lifes into an imagined story. It would be interesting enough if this were the point of the exhibition, but Sher imbues a sense of Pearl into these pictures, which become metaphorical descriptions of the old woman. Vincent van Gogh wrote, "Ah, portraiture, portraiture, with the thought, the soul of the model in it, that is what I think must come...it is actually one's duty to paint the rich and magnificent aspects of nature...do I make myself understood? I am just trying to make you see this single great truth: one can paint all of humanity by the simple means of portraiture." Sher seems to be attempting exactly that, telling us a simple story with complex possibilities. - Bradley Rubenstein
frosh&portmann is at 53 Stanton Street in Manhattan, New York.
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.