Slightly Surreal Suburbia- Cristin Tierney GalleryCristin Tierney Gallery
Joan Linder + Maureen O’Leary
June 18-August 6
Review by Heather Zises
“There is something lonely in the American Spirit, and it was brought forth again with gusto during the pandemic.”- Maureen O’Leary.
Currently on view at Cristin Tierney Gallery is Slightly Surreal Suburbia, a two-person exhibition featuring works on paper and sculptures by Joan Linder and paintings by Maureen O’Leary. The tightly curated show presents new results by artists whose shared perspectives are heavily influenced by suburban environments riddled with social oddities and creative restlessness. During the past year, the two women became “deeply enmeshed with their surroundings,” as aptly stated in the press release, while forced to shelter in place due to the pandemic. Unable to travel or casually venture out into their communities, Linder and O’Leary sharpened their focus upon domestic life outside of the metropolitan sphere.
After a long delay due to the pandemic, Slightly Surreal Suburbia finally took place IRL on the Bowery this summer. Remarkably, being on mandatory lockdown managed to reshape and empower new alternatives in the art world (take that, Cancel Culture!) as opposed to stymieing the community. Moreover, this collective lapse in time lent itself to rethinking subject matter and revising feminist tropes. In the post-pandemic landscape, we discover a new spin on domestic life evidenced in ‘quarantine art’ that directly challenges the historicization of interior space and its inhabitants. No longer is it just women who are restricted to the private sphere—an antiquated notion that recalls Virginia Woolf’s renowned text “A Room of One’s Own”—now everyone is subject to these confines, without discrimination. As a result, scores of artworks having to do with domestic spaces and interiors have saturated the market, giving momentum to the burgeoning movement.
As artists pivoted inward for ideas, it bred a kind of forced voyeurism where the act of looking became an art form itself. Whether gazing out a window from home or observing architecture from a moving car, life became a silent film that starred only a few key players. This behavior became particularly rampant in the suburbs, where fences only go so high and window treatments only obscure so much. With life at a temporary standstill, people sought comfort in mundane routines such as receiving mail, taking out the trash, or gardening.
O’Leary, whose paintings capture the quirks of her Long Island neighborhood surroundings, presents fleeting, moody scenes viewed from her home and art studio that match this achingly quiet aesthetic. In Trash at Night, we see a man dragging a large garbage can behind him from a worm’s eye view. Set against a night sky of crimson and carmine, scores of trees rise like stalagmite formations. A bloated moon hangs heavily above the scene like a spotlight, emphasizing the verticality of the composition while exposing the eeriness of the act.
The Mail functions as a solid counterbalance for “Trash at Night” with its brighter palate and landscape orientation. Presented through the viewpoint of a neighbor’s window, a USPS truck stops to deliver morning mail into a roadside mailbox. The only evidence of human activity is a tiny arm outstretched from the truck window. Imbued with intense loneliness, we witness another solitary act that snags the everyday passerby into viewership. Described as “a love note to the pandemic” by O’Leary, this painting showcases how seeing an essential worker in an otherwise unoccupied vista became her lifeline to the rest of the world during quarantine. As the child of a former public administrator, the artist is comforted by acts of civil service which inadvertently transforms The Mail into a sacrosanct meditation on institutional norms.
The Weed depicts a woman’s experience in nature as she crouches in capris–almost in a devotional manner–while yanking out weeds with all her might. Folded over her shadow in the foreground, our eye easily slides over the curve of the figure’s back to follow the upward movement of flowers blooming toward spring. Perhaps an allegory of acceptance, The Weed encourages its viewers to be unafraid of digging through their conscience while in a quiet space.
Covering a myriad of narratives from loneliness to solitude to nosiness, O’Leary documents the world around her with an authenticity that perfectly captures the show’s namesake, Slightly Surreal Suburbia.