Zack Hatfield on Evelyn Statsinger

Sinuous chronicles of hallucinatory concentration, the paintings of Evelyn Statsinger (1927–2016) float the possibility of an ecological subconscious, their patterns evoking the life that teems beneath the microscope’s lens. In this way, they recall Leo Steinberg’s famous “flatbed picture plane,” a term necessitated by a “tilt” that had, according to the art historian, occurred circa 1950. In this manner, the traditional vertical orientation of easel painting had given way to a horizontal substrate that served not as a continuation of space but as a receptor for information—think desktops, maps, switchboards—and that entailed a radical shift from “nature to culture.” The flatbed picture plane and the vertical “window” that Steinberg associated with Renaissance painting seem to converge in certain Statsinger works, which contain a multiplicity of cultures, not unlike a petri dish. Indeed, those who listen to an interview she gave for a 2011 oral history might conclude that the defining moment of the artist’s career occurred during her student years, when she opened her refrigerator one day and found a bit of mold. Fascinated with its “proliferation,” she began to make obsessive allover drawings that quickly caught the eye of a Time magazine critic who published a short feature on her, in 1954, under the derisive headline “Art: Girl Explorer.”

This past spring, curator Dan Nadel organized “Currents,” a concise survey of Statsinger’s paintings and drawings from the 1980s and ’90s, and her first-ever exhibition in her hometown of New York, a city she left in the late ’40s before eventually settling in Chicago. While affiliated with Chicago’s Monster Roster, who channeled their postwar pessimism into a grotesque strain of figuration, Statsinger stood apart from them. Her strongest affinity might have been with Joseph Yoakum, another long-peripheral figure linked to the Chicago Imagists who produced not landscapes exactly, but supremely personal, shape- and scale-shifting meditations on the memory of nature and the nature of memory. Unlike Yoakum, who sold his drawings to strangers for a few dollars each, Statsinger applied her discerning eye to collectors as well, and her cautious approach to selling her work presumably only deepened her relative obscurity.

In 1972, the artist and her husband began summering in Allegan, Michigan, where “Currents” had its roots, literally: The couple planted a pine forest behind the 1890s schoolhouse they renovated together. In Allegan and on the beach of Lake Michigan, Statsinger collected stones, seeds, leaves, blades of grass, and other elements of the natural world. Back in her Chicago studio, she would arrange these foraged talismans into still lifes that inspired freehand compositions such as Crossroads, 1992, whose mysteriously grouped details—a red leaf, an insect’s wing, and perhaps the buttery green of an avocado—appear transfixed in a piece of shattered cosmic amber. The painting magnifies the randomness intrinsic to existence. Cross Currents, 1985, by contrast, envisions a biological system replete with serpentine conduits and undulant patterns, its stratiform backdrop unzipped to divulge an expanse of entwined tendrils and seething lava; elsewhere in the picture, a cord twists its way around a large, steely tentacle toward the center of the canvas, puffing out some toxic eructation.

The artist allows malevolence to flourish here and in her drawings, which are as lively and elegantly constructed as a Hokusai woodcut. Their radioactive palettes and ruined wastelands point back to the fact that, only five years prior to her 1947 arrival in the Windy City, a group of physicists initiated the first artificial nuclear reaction, underneath the University of Chicago’s football stadium, commencing the Atomic Age. (Statsinger’s husband was, in fact, a physicist who worked at the Argonne National Laboratory, a nuclear research facility now based in Lemont, Illinois, whose origins lie in the Manhattan Project.)

But Statsinger’s zeal for enigma, her obsession with obsession, ultimately subsumed and disguised the existential terrors—among them, humanity’s creative aptitude for its own destruction—more nakedly thematized by the Monster Roster’s core members. Each work obliges viewers to look with the same closeness and uncertainty from which it resulted: rewarding, exhausting terms. Artist Suellen Rocca once joked that walking down the beach with Statsinger could be agonizing, as Statsinger kept her head down, intent on studying every rock. The question remains whether her own name, resurfaced for the moment, will command further scrutiny or return to its previous fate, a gem left to go back with the tide.

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