Artists and writers have used parlour games to combat creative blockages for centuries. From the Victorian drawing game Exquisite Corpse to Brian Eno’s block-busting cards, Oblique Strategies, creativity seems to flourish when it’s distracted by games.
A new group show at New York gallery Fredericks & Freiser is based on a similar premise: it’s a retrospective of work by a fictional artist, "S-," imagined by the writer Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything is Illuminated, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). Curated by painter Sam Messer (who is also associate dean at Yale School of Art), Retrospective of S- showcases work from ten very real female artists, each of whom was asked to base a painting on a distinct era of S-’s life.
We begin with S- as a 12-year-old, free from the oppressive weight (take it from me) of formal art education. Safran Foer provides a short biographical snippet next to each painting, which the artists used as prompts. S- progresses into adulthood, finding her voice as a painter ("S -'s fascination with the representation of sex acts took full flight on the cusp of the 80s"), experiencing personal loss, creative rebirth, and critical success. The paintings come from a fairly diverse group of artists, ranging from a frame of two bodies in motion by Nigerian-American painter Njideka Akunyili, to a haunting portrait that refers to the death of S-’s husband, by Natalie Frank.
Like all great parlor games, Retrospective of S- lets the artists work without the burden of autobiography. S- may be a gimmick, but she’s a harmless gimmick, and a useful foil that lets a group of female artists examine gender and age, informally. The show runs through July 27th.