“The reason things can be so beautiful is that they can be so ugly.”
— Playwright Beth Henley, quoted in the recent McCarter Theater program for “Crimes of the Heart”
Csilla Sadloch goes right to the big questions in her art: What is beauty? And how can something so ugly become beautiful?
“Junctures Observed,” oil paintings by Csilla (pronounced like Sheila) Sadloch, are on view at the Gallery at Chapin beginning Monday, April 4, with a reception on Wednesday, April 6. The show is on view through Friday, April 29. The “junctures” in the title refers to the point “at which two disparate parts join, such as a stem joined to a leaf or seeds born of a pod. Where does the seed come from, how did it grow?” she asks. Transitions that occur at the juncture are what interest her.
The Yardley, PA-based artist finds her source material in nature, particularly plant life, although she insists she’s not a gardener. “I love to give directions to someone else who’s planting, but I don’t like to get dirty,” she says. “Had I not had a dog I would never have looked at a plant.”
But when she looks at a plant, it’s as if her eyes become magnifying glasses. Sadloch’s paintings thoroughly analyze plant life, blowing it up, sometimes taking it to new proportions and reinventing it. She puts people and animals into her plant world, creating a dreamscape.
“As we have become more and more removed from nature, experiencing it from climate-controlled cars or as the background to advertisements, Sadloch’s paintings show us what we are missing,” wrote Maida Milone, executive director of Creative Artists Network, in the catalog for Sadloch’s one-woman show at Woodmere Art Museum in Philadelphia in 2002. “These images invite us to enter the forest and reach for the acorns and berries hidden behind vines and branches, to examine the pods, thorns, and leaves on the forest floor.”
Although a Bucks County painter, Sadloch is not interested in painting farms or barns. “I want to focus on realism but stay contemporary while holding on to tradition,” she says.
“Artists have few choices from which to find something new,” continues Sadloch, who teaches experimental painting at Bucks County Community College. “I settle on what’s around me when I walk, what catches my eye. The more ordinary the plant, a weed, with dried shapes of curly leaves or milkweed with its seeds spilling out, lends itself to a wide interpretation. Their fecund shells look like birds about to take off.”
She especially likes to paint milkweed, starting with a color copy she enlarges, blocking out parts she doesn’t need with PhotoShop. “I enjoy the blank space around objects, so it becomes conceptual and not narrative,” she says. A self-described maximalist, “I want to energize every part of the canvas by painstakingly working every crevice, but it’s like having too much for dinner — you need a break, so empty space becomes more important.”
Sadloch’s creative process begins with photography, she says in her artist statement. “The camera allows me to zoom and discover veins, bumps, creases and parts of plants that would normally go unnoticed. These hyper-examined forms become discoveries for me and, as I paint them, mischievous and thorny interpretations often result. The pleasure comes when the ordinary object metamorphoses into a somewhat extraordinary, ambiguous and sometimes menacing new form.”
Winston the dog is snoozing on the deck, overlooking a sunny garden, as he recovers from surgery. His predecessor, Raven, a black dog, can be seen in a painting over the grand piano in the living room. The main subject of the wall-size painting is Vera Leigh, Sadloch’s daughter. Now 31, in the painting she is a petulant girl in a pink dress, melting into a chair.
During that period, Sadloch was influenced by Balthus, who depicted young girls in an erotic context.
The piano, by the way, was played by Vera Leigh as well as Sadloch, who in the end found herself more in PhotoShop than the musical instrument.
Although she studied art at Montclair State University, graduating with a bachelor’s in art in 1977, Sadloch went through a crisis of confidence during the years she was raising Vera Leigh, some years painting as few as one painting. Nevertheless, her living room is filled with the different periods of her work, from mixed media pieces made with Sculpey polymer clay and foam board in the ’80s — little niches with sacred objects within, referring to childhood memories — to more abstract work in the ’90s.
“I’m less spiritual now than I was in the ’80s,” she says. “I loved mythology in college, the mystical religious realm. I was longing for religious symbolism. Now I’m on another path.”
That path can be seen at the Chapin School exhibit, and while a part of Sadloch yearns to have fun with looser abstraction, she knows she must stay the course.
“Vera Leigh is my best model, a willing participant,” says Sadloch. And Vera Leigh is in several of the paintings at Chapin, including one where she has her hair pulled back in a headband and is standing off from a bloom of tulip poplar that looks very interested in her flesh. Sadloch paints skin so soft, it looks like she is using egg tempera, but she is able to achieve this with oil paint. The people in her paintings have Renaissance complexions.
There is also a series of “backyard paintings,” little vignettes of childhood, including one of a little girl hiding under the enormous ruffled leaves of a plant that looks like it is consuming her.
Born in Budapest in 1948, Sadloch and her family left Hungary during the revolution in 1956, spending a year in Austria, where she attended a boarding school, before emigrating to Garfield, NJ.
“There is one memory I won’t forget,” she says. Sadloch and one of her two sisters, as well as their mother, were in Austria, when finally their little sister was sent, delivered by a friend of their mother in the middle of the night. Sadloch recreated that emotional scene in a painting of two girls running to a third in the dark, the shadow of a man in the background.
Sadloch’s mother worked as a secretary in Hungary, and her father, an engineer, chose to stay when the rest of the family left. Sadloch’s mother remarried an electrical engineer and worked as a seamstress in this country because of her language handicap.
Trying to fit in as an immigrant child, Sadloch found her way drawing. “That wasn’t rewarded in Garfield, a blue collar town,” she says. She was accepted at Cooper Union, she says, but that was too frightening. “I had to do it on my own, because my mom was struggling to keep food on the table. There was no room for luxuries such as art.”
Sadloch didn’t go to college until four years after graduating from high school, working in the foreign student office to pay her bills. “I realized art as my calling,” she says, “and I was a lousy secretary.”
Creativity runs in the family: Sadloch’s older sister is a singer and her younger sister is a decorator. “And we’re all curious creatures and great cooks,” she says. “My older sister knows every mushroom in the forest.” Not surprisingly, those mushrooms became subjects of Sadloch’s paintings.
During the years 1998 to 2006, Sadloch’s mother came to live with her and her husband, Emil. They added on an apartment with a kitchenette, and Sadloch used the basement as her studio, where she taught classes for children and adults. When her mother died, Sadloch converted the apartment to her studio and office, with views of the garden where she finds inspiration.
In the studio quiet piano music from Sky.FM plays. A series of small abstract canvases that had shown at Stover Mill Gallery a few years ago and now fill a ladder tempt her down that route again, but she has a quote from an article by Roger White posted on artinfo.com taped to her desk to remind her of what it means to be a contemporary realist painter: “with conceptual freight neither overshadowing nor disappearing from their concerns.”
So, where does one draw that line between the beautiful and the ugly? Sadloch sees the beauty in the red blooms of the poison sumac; clusters of bugs crawling on dried milkweed; the hairy vine of poison ivy, creeping, crawling, choking; and yes, at the junctures where two parts meet, there might be a tumor, or a burl, a deformation that is prized by woodworkers. “I’ve become aware of this, and I want to paint this oddity, this sinister side, and focus on the intricacies of form.”
Art Exhibit, Chapin School, 4101 Princeton Pike, Princeton. Monday, April 4, 8:30 a.m. First day for “Junctures Observed” exhibit featuring oil paintings of Csilla Sadloch. Opening reception is Wednesday, April 6, from 5 to 7 p.m. On view to April 29. On view during school hours or by appointment. 609-924-7206 or www.chapinschool.org.