Carl Kostyál proudly presents Seven Sisters, New York-based artist Cynthia Talmadge’s first solo exhibition with the gallery. Installed in the context of Kostyál’s home in Milan – the piano nobile of a 19th century palazzo re-modelled in 1963 by Milanese architect Luigi Caccia Dominioni – is Talmadge’s new body of work, Pointillist paintings of Brutalist architecture seen in the snow on the Seven Sisters campuses.
Seven Sisters is the collective appellation for a group of liberal arts colleges located in the northeastern United States. Barnard College, Bryn Mawr College, Mount Holyoke College, Radcliffe College, Smith College, Vassar College and Wellesley College were all originally founded in the 19th century to provide women with an educational equivalent to the (then male-only) Ivy League.
While Pointillism occupies a comfortable place in bourgeois official art history and Talmadge’s works are highly accomplished in its conventions, the depictions themselves are, as the artist describes them, “very desolate images that evoke the feeling of being the only person left in the dorms over winter break.” Seurat reinterpreted through Sylvia Plath (Smith ’55), perhaps.
The works continue Talmadge’s unfolding engagement with darker corners of the firmament of American cultural history. Previous subjects of the artist’s saturnine interest have included reimaginations of illustrious chemical dependency treatment facilities, and, more recently, the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel, a fixture of New York’s Upper East Side that hosted farewells for the likes of Igor Stravinsky, Rudolph Valentino, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Judy Garland, Tennessee Williams, Joan Crawford, and Biggie Smalls, amongst many others.
As Roberta Smith observed of the latter series in the New York Times, “Like Monet painting the Rouen Cathedral, Ms. Talmadge has painted the funeral home’s facade from different angles, in different seasons, at different times of day. But she has side-stepped Impressionism’s speedy improvisation for an implicitly static style. The dot-by-dot pointillism… is a method that has all the deliberation and precision of a funeral director preparing a corpse for an open coffin.”
The Seven Sisters paintings are more emotive, suffused with a general sense of constant low-intensity oppression. A quiet and powerful mix of emotional, visual, and art-historical intelligence is evident throughout the works. In Campus Safety (Wellesley College), 2020, the viewer is positioned at the lower ground floor exit of a brutalist building, looking up a flight of stairs past the blue light of a campus security emergency call box at a Neo-Gothic chapel ahead, all seen through falling snow. Any sense of immanent ascension in the work, however, is replaced by a more deadpan visual assessment: this is what is, and what must be faced.
In Welcome Freshmen, 2020, the ghostly reflection of a Federal style red brick building hovers in the panes of a functional array of tall, modernist windows, broken by a twisted banner welcoming a past fall’s incoming class, as well as by the silhouettes of predatory birds (stickers used to frighten off smaller birds that are often injured by flying into windows) – symbols of mobility rendered inert.
Carrel, 2020, depicts the interior of a library in a warmer palette. A cramped study desk and chair sit constrained by the concrete and glass geometry. A Wellesley College pennant is affixed to the raw (“brut”) cement wall, its proud letters tapering to nothing. In bypassing the picturesque views of these institutions in favor of a focus on the brutalist structures that punctuate their more traditionalist campus architecture, Talmadge questions how a building style that originated in European socialist utopianism came to advertise the egalitarian aims of schools originally created for the daughters of an American WASP elite, whether those aspirations are in any way fulfilled by the contemporary “meritocracy” these institutions now embody, and what the emotional repercussions for the occupants of these buildings might be.
Beyond its dense emotional charge, Talmadge’s Pointillism also makes a sharp historical connection. The Seven Sisters colleges were founded during the same period as the most prestigious art institutions in the US northeast, including the Museum of Fine Arts Boston; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; and the Art Institute of Chicago. Here, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, once radical, were to be smoothly appropriated by the soft power of the same establishment culture the colleges were founded to serve, prefiguring the strange role of the modernist architecture on the campuses Talmadge depicts. Taken together, the subjects of the show and the rendering of those subjects produce an intimate portrayal of what happens when promise and potential meet power and its institutions.
Against this intricate cultural-historical backdrop, unseen but psychologically present in all the work, is Talmadge herself: “I’m always trying to understand the moment when my personal reaction to something sincerely painful or terrifying approaches cinematic cliché. I’m both attracted to and repulsed by this tendency, and interested in using my work to understand what it means, refining and stylizing artifacts from actual lived trauma to the point where they connect to shared cultural vocabularies.”
Cynthia Talmadge holds a Bachelor of Arts in Painting from the Rhode Island School of Design. She lives and works in New York. This is her first solo exhibition at Carl Kostyál. She will participate in Carl Kostyál’s invitational residency programme Fontana di Vita in Matera later this year.
Past solo presentations include 1076 Madison, 56 HENRY (2019) As the World Turns, Halsey McKay Gallery, New York (2018), Leaves of Absence, 56 HENRY (2017). Talmadge has participated in group shows at galleries and cultural institutions throughout the United States, Europe, and the Middle East, including Jeffrey Deitch, Los Angeles; Mana Contemporary, New Jersey; Almine Reich, New York; Nina Johnson Gallery, Miami; Fisher Parrish, Brooklyn; Tina Kim Gallery, New York; the Architecture & Design School, Free University of Tbilisi, Georgia; the Foam Museum, Amsterdam; Foundation for Contemporary Arts, New York; Amsterdam Fund for the Arts; Albert Merola Gallery, Provincetown, Massachusetts; Monya Rowe Gallery, St. Augustine, Florida; Aperture Gallery, New York; Beaconsfield Gallery, Vauxhall, London; De Markten, Brussels; JOAN, Los Angeles; LeRoy Neiman Gallery, New York; Atelier Néerlandais, Paris; Pioneer Works, Brooklyn; Superchief Gallery, Los Angeles and Petrella’s Imports, New York.
Photo: Emiliano Scatarzi; ©the artist. Courtesy of Carl Kostyál