by Kim Beil
Sherié Franssen’s massive, vigorous paintings revel in the depth and saturation that are hallmarks of oil paint. In reproduction, their extravagant thick surfaces are flattened and the organization of their vast spaces becomes less easily legible; compressed, her paintings look like firecrackers or chrysanthemums. In person, however, figures can be seen emerging from the depths of paint. Franssen is often inspired by art historical images, from Mantegna to Philip Guston. When one comes face-to-face with her paintings, much of the energy of the elaborately deconstructed and recontextualized canonical compositions carries through, bearing with it the resonance of centuries of connoisseurship and study.
Her first show at Dolby Chadwick Gallery in San Francisco, entitled Satisfaction is Nothing, in the winter of 2006, contained numerous figurative clues. Franssen’s black studies, inspired by British author Martin Amis’s novel Night Train, are chillingly somber works featuring pale nude figures in dark interior settings. By 2008 Franssen abandoned the familiar means of separating figure from landscape. The paintings in her second solo show at the gallery, this past winter, called Driving into the Ocean, shattered her figurative elements into a kaleidoscope of quilted brush strokes. Two other paintings, Versailles and Rive Gauche, in flamingo pink, fleshy peach and sage green, are teasing jabs at Marie Antoinette’s alleged hatred of orange. Starting from a vague idea of color, Franssen worked the paint until forms emerged and, as she says, “content manifests itself.” (Critic Kenneth Baker, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, named another work from this show, Group in Sea, the best new artwork of 2008).
Franssen, who grew up in Long Beach, now resides in Huntington Beach. Her first name is an Anglicized spelling of the French “cherie,” meaning dear or dearest and the accent mark migrates between an apostrophe and a true accent above the final ‘e’ in her name. She began painting seriously at age 39, less than a year after she encountered the work of Philip Guston at MOMA on her first visit to an art museum. Soon she returned to school, taking classes at Long Beach City College and eventually graduating with a BFA from CSU Long Beach.
In Franssen’s crowded Sunset Beach studio in late March, catalogues and computer printouts cover the walls and desk. Several images feature a Rubens and Brueghel collaborative painting of the Garden of Eden and Mantegna’s Pallas Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue. Franssen’s latest painting, tentatively titled Waters of March, is an amalgamation of these two masterworks, but one would be hard-pressed to see either the Renaissance or Baroque work in Franssen’s exuberant abstraction. The juxtaposition of the pagan against the Christian initially animated Franssen’s interest in the two paintings, but as she says, “I have to paint for the world that I’m in today.” That world is one that Franssen sees as characterized by “disruption and dissolution.” She observes, “When you’re watching a television program, everything is tied up in a bow at the end, but in real life it’s not like that. Things are always left hanging. I would like my paintings to reflect that reality—they should be without beginnings and ends.”
While Franssen’s 2008 painting There Have to Be Problems refers to a Warren Beatty quote on the difficulty of making Bonnie and Clyde, it is also an apt description of Franssen’s working process. “Usually when I think things are going really well and I’m feeling really confident, that’s when I know that I need some sort of a disruption. I need to set something up in the composition almost to break it down. I want that kind of excitement.” Franssen’s masterful paintings convey that energy to the viewer, hovering between beauty and chaos.