Patrick Painter is proud to present SERE: Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape, an exhibition of paintings and an installation by New York-based artist Charlotta Westergren.
SERE is an acronym for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape, a military program that was supposed to provide soldiers with training in evading capture and survival skills. The techniques used in SERE training soldiers to resist interrogation were turned around to provide the template for torture methods. Each of the words that make up the name have an emotional resonance.
The series of work begins with War on Terror. The painting comes out of a long period of creative block. The turning point for Westergren came in looking at Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa. It depicts the aftermath of the wreck of the French ship Méduse. The captain, a political appointee, fled in one of the few lifeboats, setting the survivors adrift to endure starvation, cannibalism and madness. “As I stood in front of the The Raft of the Medusa,” Westergren recalls, “time flattened. I felt Géricault’s rage.” Bush might as well have been King Louis XVIII standing on that raft, with a ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner. The paintings here draw inspiration from this scene: they are about control, anger, power and powerlessness.The image in War on Terror comes from the Unicorn Tapestries, the most iconic artworks to come out of the “Dark Ages.” The aggression of the unicorn, usually a symbol of innocence, is highlighted by the close crop that focuses on the unicorn goring a dog with his horn. “It may be the only tapestry that shows a unicorn attacking,” Westergren points out.
In Victory, a deep blue aura highlights the goose’s white feathers, which form the shape of a crucifix. The Condemnede alludes to the submission of the lamb.“The stories of Christianity,” says Westergren “are universal fictions that the audience understands.” Her interest is not in their historical meaning but their psychological weight. The lambs in The Condemned are pulled into a modern context, set against a stark bright background, vulnerable and alone with nothing but their shadows.
Because of the attention to detail that goes into it, Westergren relates that, “sometimes my work is mistaken for photorealism.” In fact, the influences on the work come from the Flemish painting tradition. For artists like Dürer, each blade of grass and each hair on the rabbit were carefully considered. Westergren’s work is hyper-real: “I want to slow the viewer down,” she explains.”There is something magical about each petal, each thorn, each feather being carefully considered.”
In The Condemned the lambs are an iridescent pink, their faces built out of melting brushstrokes. The dead bird of Victory turns into the flying swan of Ascent. The near vertical sweep of the swan’s wing is filled with a multitude of blues, as the wing encompasses the sky itself.
The show takes on themes of control, time, death and rebirth in serious ways, but also with irony and humor. The installation Fucking is joyful; a celebration of the fecundity of nature. The piece is made out of thousands of images cut and scanned from Martha Stewart Living, penetrated with pins. “It’s my way of representing that exciting birds and bees feeling we have when the first crocus arrives and the days are longer,” Westergren opines. The flowers are captured, but they also let the viewer escape to another place.
Charlotta Westergren was born in Stockholm, Sweden. She holds degrees from Barnard College, Columbia Universtiy and the Museum of Fine Arts. Today she lives and works in New York. Her solo exhibitions have included the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum, Santa Barbara, CA (2010); Bellwether Gallery, New York, NY (2006), Mary Goldman Gallery, Los Angeles, CA (2006), and others.