Sarah G. Austin’s intimate reflections on Old Masters

BY SARAH BAUMANN

The Pavel Zoubok Gallery is in the final week of an exhibition entitled In Translation: Sarah G. Austin, George Deem, Ginnie Gardiner (on view from May 27 – June 26, 2010). All three artists use important works from the Renaissance to Surrealism as the basis for their contemporary compositions, consequently creating a playful dialogue between old and new.

Although the show features merely a few works with true relevance to Old Masters + New Perspectives (both George Deem and Ginnie Gardiner draw from a more Modern palette), it provides the opportunity to explore the thoughtful and elegant world of Sarah Austin.

Born the daughter of Arthur Everett “Chick” Austin, Jr, the acclaimed director of The Wadsworth Athenaeum, Sarah Austin (1935 – 1994) grew up in the presence of great artists and was exposed to a multitude of important collections.  Her passion for both the history and creation of art was bridged perfectly by the careful construction of these clever homages to great works of art.

Held within its frame, each of Austin’s works appears unassuming, modest even. They are intimate reflection of a private life spent in the company of great art. She created not for others, but for her own sake, and it was only towards the end of her life, and at the insistence of an old friend, that she finally began exhibiting publicly.

Austin’s intricate shadowboxes are important to today’s viewers as they help to facilitate an understanding of and an appreciation for Old Master works, specifically the works of Jean Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Hans Holbein, and Titian.

The images featured in these constructions were, quite fittingly, pulled from art historical texts. She then presented them  in a playful and contemporary format that could be more easily accessed and appreciated by those who are more comfortable surrounded by Contemporary and Modern art.

While Austin craftsmanship displays a steady hand and an eye for detail, she distinguishes herself in these pieces by boldly choosing to reinterpret works that are considered masterpieces. The art historical bar is set pretty high when trying to tinker with works that are basically considered flawless. Yet she thoughtfully adjusts and transforms their design, while maintaining their compositional balance. These careful alterations create an array of complex structural relationships that make these pieces clever, charming, and visually appealing.

In  “Portrait of a member of the Contarini family, (after Titian)” [1], Austin breaks up the picture plane into several distinct sections. As a result, the viewer’s eye travels more purposefully across the now multi-dimensional image because points of interest are clearly marked by changes in elevation.

In “Lais de Corinthe c.1526 (Hans Holbein, 1497/8-1543)“, Austin plays with an already clever composition. The sitter, Lais de Corinthe, has placed her hand on the painted surface in front of her, gracefully gesturing towards her name, and simultaneously drawing attention to her collection of gold. In this hand, Austin has placed a duplicate image of the sitter’s own head, a humorous touch that plays on the sitter’s self-acknowledgment, and perhaps even self-love.

Generally, however, Austin made these boxes for she loved to create. She was not always interested in constructing pieces steeped in Renaissance symbolism, as she more enjoyed dabbling in new printing techniques and creating interesting compositions. Take, for example, “Music, 1529 (after Hans Baldung,1484/5-1545)”. In this well-balanced and seemingly effortless construction, Austin displays the work twice, side by side, as if one was a reflection of the other. Probably drawing both images from art historical texts, she shows one in color, and the other in black and white, underscoring her interest in printing and image reproduction. Overall, there’s an earnest quality here that shows how deeply she cared about the works of the Masters she employed.

It’s a joy to find a gallery in the heart of Chelsea showing art that underscores the importance and contemporary relevance of Old Master works. It seems that as people slowly and casually distance themselves from great Master works, their meaning and relevance to us changes. Therefore, it’s at moments like this that artists like Sarah Austin can truly make an impact. She draws us back and reminds us of the beauty and brilliance that once was. She is our translator.

[1] The original Portrait of a Member of the Contarini Family was initially falsely attributed to Titian. It is now thought to be painted by Paris Bordone, a student of Titian’s.

“In Translation: Sarah G. Austin, George Deem, Ginnie Gardiner,” now on view at the Pavel Zoubok Gallery, 533 West 23rd Street, NYC

For further exhibition info, visit the Pavel Zoubok website here.

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