Kenneth Baker reviews Sherie’ Franssen’s exhibition “Driving Into the Ocean” San Francisco Chronicle

Abstractions from paintbrush and camera

December 2008

by Kenneth Baker

When Southern California painter Sherié Franssen first showed her work in San Francisco two years ago, I thought that, already in midcareer, she must have hit her stride. But her new work at Dolby Chadwick marks an even higher pitch of daring and fulfillment.

Her paintings may strike unprepared eyes as visual gibberish, but that's the first proof of her fearlessness as an artist.

To comprehend these abstractions, even merely to stay with them, requires moving repeatedly close and far, looking from edge to edge and softening one's gaze to take in a whole picture - rhythms that probably echo her working process.

To anyone who would enter deeply into work such as this, painter and art historian James Elkins recommends miming individual gestures on the canvas to get a physical feel for the artist's reflexes and decisions. Even imagining in detail that sort of performance will make Franssen's pictures more intelligible and appreciable.

Her bravura as a colorist defies analysis. Few painters can use white, as Franssen does, so effectively that it simply escapes notice at first and announces itself as a color, and not as erasure, when it does catch one's attention.

Any artist who makes her sources plain as Franssen does - hers include Philip Guston, Willem de Kooning and Chaim Soutine - risks her work suffering in the comparisons it invites. "Group in Sea" (2008) all but dares us to recollect high points of de Kooning's great late years, 1977 and '78. But because she celebrates her own memories and understanding of de Kooning's work, rather than trying to disguise them, her picture burns with an authority all its own.

Franssen's eye is not unerring, even if her hand can seem to be. The vertical format of two canvases at Dolby Chadwick seems to have defeated her somehow, despite all the pictures' tasty ingredients. But if these pieces fail, they do it at a very high level.

No doubt other critics besides me have likened Franssen's work to that of New York painter Cecily Brown. Figurative foundations apparently underlie Franssen's all-out performances as they do Brown's. But where in Brown's work those underpinnings retain vestiges of explicit eroticism, Franssen's paintings evoke the flesh of the real and her art form's epic romance with it. After seeing Brown's latest New York gallery show - a triumph by almost any measure - it strikes me that she has been moving more in Franssen's direction, toward dissolving everything in gesture, than the other way around.

Both Brown's work and Franssen's can induce a kind of nostalgia in viewers of a certain age for a time when the fate of their art form seemed to rest in just a few hands. Taking that thought literally stirs much more anxiety now than it did several decades ago, for painting seemed to die several deaths in the interim. But such is the excitement that Franssen's work can produce.