Unleashing What Lies Beneath
by Elizabeth Michelman
Ellen Raquel LeBow’s large sgraffito paintings in her “Every border can be cross” exhibition at the Groton School resemble the familiar grade-school project of scratching designs through a wax-covered board to reveal variegated color. But there is nothing child-like in LeBow’s black-ink-on Claybord figurative panels, many of which tower seven feet high. Her monochromatic palette and all-over technique hint of Orozco’s and Jackson Pollock’s murals, and mirror the latter’s early fascination with Jungian archetypal forms. But unlike Pollock, LeBow’s vibrating figures are legible, and her line is fluid and disciplined.
LeBow gathers her human and bestial forms from a universe of art sources, contemporary and classic. Mixing tradition and cliché, she treads a delicate path between reverence, pathos and irony. Despite the abundance and frenzy of her literal content, LeBow’s formal achievement is at the level of abstraction in combining spatial, optical and emotional strategies to prevent our straying from the picture frame.
Clusters of figures, large and small, jostle in the same constricted territory and threaten to fly apart along multiple fractures. Ever-fainter images overlay and nestle among each other, defying the limits of inner space. Adding to the confusion, organizational strategies shift from one region of a painting to another. In the same painting one finds aerial perspectives, Baroque twists and views from below. There are Byzantine arrays of figures and the changes of scale of medieval stained glass. The viewer may recognize the regular forms of Egyptian tomb carvings and the shallow space of Greek vases, the intimate confines of Persian miniatures and the flatness of Gauguin’s tropical settings. All is governed by LeBow’s awareness of post-Cubist space and the push-pull dynamics of 20th-century abstraction.
It’s not possible, and probably not expected, to parse every one of LeBow’s diverse references. An anti-narrative tendency may also be at work. Christian-sounding titles, like “The Visitation,” “The Ascension” or “Christ Curses the Fig Tree” would seem to direct us to consider the myths and allegories of the New Testament. But many of her images may draw from more distant cultures or personal sources, as well as less-known references to Haitian history, Creole language and Vodou belief systems. The artist’s purpose seems not to illustrate or allegorize, but to free the viewer to discover and invent connections for herself.
Nevertheless, LeBow intrigues us with snippets of internal significance and cultural critique. Figures repeat side-byside, and characters reappear as archetypes in different settings. From one panel to the next we see prophets and saints, Christs and Madonnas, Buddhas and Vishnus, naked Adams, cherubic babes and buxom and grieving women of all races. Into her already-crammed spaces, LeBow shoehorns god-like Santa Clauses and transparent snowmen, Mickey Mouse, Cinderella and Peter Pan. At moments one feels immersed in Dumbo’s hallucinatory vision, “Elephants on Parade,” in black and white.