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Inklings by Françoise Pétrovitch (review)
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The paintings of Françoise Pétrovitch’s New York debut feel like childhood memories. Simplified forms melt and metamorphose, and colors fade back to the black, red, and white filter of fairy tales. In Pétrovitch’s paintings personages shift in their skins between beast and human and settle, sometimes, on something in-between.

The French artist has a history of working with fairy-tale imagery. Paintings of Little Red Riding Hood were included in her installation at Paris’s Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature earlier this year. In the paintings Little Red Riding Hood wears the slain wolf’s skin, with the wolf’s head draped over her own— an image recalling the classical iconography of Hercules donning the pelt of the Nemean Lion, posing the victimized girl of a familiar tale in the stance of the mythical ideal of masculine prowess. In the images of the girl wearing the wolf’s skin can also be found a sense of the child blending together with the beast.

In Inklings Pétrovitch explores the in-between space where child and beast meet. Walking into the gallery, one enters a room dominated by a series of 5-foot-high red and black ink works depicting simplified human heads lying alongside more realistic animals, some bodiless, some whole. Reds and blacks bleed out between forms and, where the shapes meet, paper buckles and fissures form in too thick ink. There are landscapes in the spaces of melding and deformity.

The key to the pieces can perhaps be found in the room’s only small work: a triptych depicting a child’s metamorphosis. In the first panel a young girl sits alone, looking down at something the viewer cannot see, while a butterfly, maybe the most basic and appropriately childish symbol of transformation, dominates the space. In the middle panel a dead bird, lying on its back, is centered. This is presumably what the girl in the first scene is looking at. The final panel shows a girl-bird hybrid, the girl and the bird melded together, metamorphosed into a kind of siren or harpy. The girl-bird of the final scene stands with her back to the light. She looks down at the new shape of her shadow.

The large paintings of simplified heads and delicate animals could be viewed as depicting the in-between scene not shown in the keystone triptych: the confusing and overwhelming moment of transformation.

Although the Little Red Riding Hood paintings for the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature installation show a girl covering herself under the skin of an animal, à la Hercules or Donkeyskin, the images at the FIAF Gallery are not of children affecting disguises but of truer transformations. The simplest take on the theme of the exhibition would be that the works are about the turbulent period of change between childhood and what comes after. This would seem to be confirmed by the second part of the show: a small red-walled room behind the main space of the gallery where a video is projected, accompanied by the constant and jarring sounds of syncopated drums. The video flashes ink-drawn images of children playing, of animals being hunted, and of shapes that seem to move between the forms of children and animals and, in doing so, confusing their roles. There is throughout the video a feeling of unease. The animals do not carry any association with natural freedom: the bird children do not fly; the beast children are hunted. The opening image of the video is a red-ink drawing of two closed eyes. In the final scene, after all the violence of play and hunting and transformation, the two eyes are open.

Exiting that room back into the relative calm of a New York gallery, one remembers what it was like to be scared, to feel hunted and confused and small. The main space’s paintings, while simple and silent, seem to loom over-large. Childhood transformations can be terrifying. Françoise Pétrovitch helps us remember that feeling.

Eric Birkeland  

Eric Birkeland is a graduate of the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa...

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