There’s something both subversive and deceptive about artist Denise Stewart-Sanabria’s work. One category of her work, drawings of life-size people, is currently on display in the Dogwood Arts Gallery on West Jackson Avenue in the Old City.
At first appearance, these pieces, executed in charcoal and colored pencil on 1/4” sheets of plywood, are straightforward drawings of people, so realistic they look like they could just walk away at any moment.
Stewart-Sanabria describes the work as drawings that are cut out of 4’x8’ sheets of plywood, then mounted on bases so they will stand up. She groups the figures in virtual gatherings so they appear to be ordinary people interacting with each other.
In conventional-perspective paintings, what one sees on the surface of the canvas is intended to represent a three-dimensional space that has depth – a well-dressed man or woman standing in front of a window, for instance. The idea is to give the viewer the sense that if they could walk into the picture, they could walk around behind the primary figures and see what their clothing looks like from the back, as well as move around in the room, or outdoor scene, that is being depicted. The intention is for the viewer to feel as though they could smell the smells and pick up the objects on the tables.
In Stewart-Sanabria’s work, the sense of three-dimensional space is real. She intends for the viewer to actually walk around among the cutout figures in her “scenes.” Each figure is separate and freestanding. Except it’s a trick. Once one moves beyond the front of the figures and looks at them from the side, they are nothing but a single 1/4”-wide vertical black line. From the back, what one sees is a black silhouette of a human figure with a vertical, black stick down the middle that anchors it to a flat, triangular base. The “virtual scene” Stewart-Sanabria has created by arranging her figures doesn’t actually exist because each of her drawings has nothing to do with the others. There is no interaction between them. What each of the figures “sees” of the other figures is nothing but blackness. Her scenes are a trick played on the viewer.
Stewart-Sanabria describes her process as cutting the figure out of the plywood. What she is actually doing is cutting away the context that surrounds the figure so that the figure’s environment, which is never drawn, is obliterated.
The end result of her creation is a circular illusion of a three-dimensional space that the viewer can actually occupy; the space is taken away once the viewer tries to walk around in it. It’s both an exhilarating and disturbing experience, not unlike navigating through a hall of mirrors. What you think is there, isn’t.
This push/pull, present-then-take-away, reality/unreality of Stewart-Sanabria’s work becomes clearer in her photorealistic paintings of anthropomorphic food, none of which are part of this show. It would be very confusing to exhibit these paintings in her drawn-figure settings.
In her large painting “Donuts Behaving Badly: Binge and Purge,” oil on linen, 22”x56,” the huge donuts are pictured as having a life of their own. They ooze their delicious, irresistible jelly filling to attract an eater, then get revenge by making the eater disgorge, playing a nasty trick.
In her even larger painting “The Persistence of Pumpkin Spice,” oil on canvas, 4’x6’, pumpkin spice is like some alien force invading everything. In the painting it looks beautiful and delicious, but the food is only half eaten.
Both paintings, along with many of her other visually gorgeous paintings, are acts of attraction and repulsion. They function similarly to the figure drawings at Dogwood Arts. They present something that invites the viewer in, then plays tricks.
Stewart-Sanabria’s “Virtual Realities” exhibition continues at the gallery of Dogwood Arts, 123 W. Jackson Ave., through the end of March. The gallery is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday. For more information, call 865-637-4561 or visit the website. https://www.dogwoodarts.com.