by Maureen Mullarkey
Ours is a cultural climate accustomed to trimming aesthetic realities to fit designated movements and categories of art. On occasion, there emerges a truly independent sensibility disinclined to lie down in this procrustean bed. Called by John Russell "an American original," Selina Trieff has built a life in art askance of trends and the labels that accompany them.
Trained by Hans Hofmann, Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt, Trieff is a sophisticated painter who separated early from the herd of existing isms. Sui generis, she has created her own cosmos and set her own standards. She maintains a manner of working and motions of mind that elude easy classification.
Trieff brings technical brio and economy of means to a distinctive iconography that marries the tropes of commedia dell'arte to the admonishments of a medieval woodcut. Her gift for Improvisation, the first of the theater arts, is disciplined by reference to specific motifs seized from the longue durée of art history. This wealth of association lends resonance and significance to the enchantments of a personal vision. The result transforms emblems of private sensibility into verdicts on human destiny.
Trieff’s drawings, like her paintings, are hieratic, quiescent, providing stimulus to our cultural memory. Recollections of Giotto and Goya are particularly poignant. Look carefully at “The Greeting” (1984). Two robed, iconic figures embrace in an attitude evocative equally of salutation and threnody. The couple, a clearly delineated mass silhouetted against a timeless ground, summon episodes from the great fresco cycles of the Italian Renaissance. A Visitation, certainly; but also something darker and odder. It hints—as does each of her drawings—at the vale of tears glimpsed allegorically in Goya's “Disparates” and in the disquiet of his mingled realism and fantasy.
Sympathetic to Goya's melancholy, Trieff tempers it with humor. Her repertory of figures, implicitly theatrical, tends toward harlequinade and pantomime, not tragedy. The curtain rises on shrouded women with their animal familiars; on Mezzetin, in various guises; on Gilles or the eternally disappointed Pierrot; on jesters and clowns. Her cast has served other masters: Watteau, Cézanne, Derain, Picasso. Characterized by the artist's own stylized features, each player acts as Everyman poised to offer urbane meditations on mortality.
Echoes of memento mori wind their way through Trieff’s work, without piety or dread, in the skeleton that persists in claiming its place on stage. “Duo” (1983), is a sepulchral frieze featuring balanced pairs of protagonists and stage props. A resigned Harlequin suffers the company of the patient skeleton, humerus raised as much in comfort as in confiscation. The two are flanked ceremonially by a corresponding pair of piglets, animals destined for their end. As are we all. Atmospheric darks bracket the scene, encroaching on it with something more palpable than shadow. Once more, showmanship resonates with the gravity of a morality play.
The carrying power of Trieff’s imagery lies in her gift for exploiting the dramatic tension of black and white. The six imposing charcoal drawings on exhibit here, vigorously worked on stretched and gessoed paper, are best viewed as monochromatic paintings. At the emotional center of each is a painterly regard for surface and values—the gray scale—that renders color a mere accessory. There is nothing to be gained by adding prismatic hues to the color of a drawing. A point that once prompted André Lhote to comment: "This is a thing the dull birds of painting will never grasp."
Charcoal yields a range of beautiful blacks and grays that vary in density and transparency more than in tonality. Its transitory approximations create an aura of rapidity while building a surface as if with paint. Trieff works aggressively, stirring the area around the figures as well as the figures themselves. Gestural allusions to that first fleeting impulse, central to her expressive purposes, animate both the surface and the scene.
This suite of drawings is fresh, audacious, witty and humane. It is everything it ought to be.