In November Arcadia Gallery in New York City presented “Works in Progress: From 2001 through 2007,” an exhibition of Daniel Sprick’s lyrical yet unsettling interiors. An admirer of Van Eyck and Vermeer, Sprick uses light and shadow to suggest suspended time, but his stillness is too uncanny to be serene. His debt to seventeenth-century Dutch art is obvious, especially in the recurrence of vanitas objects such as flowers and skulls, although the mounted specimen of a skeleton with formidable talons in Bird in Landscape would look at home in a modern natural history museum. Sprick freely mixes in contemporary elements, modernist chrome chairs, for example, and picture windows opening onto the landscape outside his Colorado studio. His paintings have slightly unreal tonalities, deliberately achieved by manipulating the “warm primary light” from studio windows with “a cooler, secondary light source wrapping around the shadow sides of objects, reflected from a mirror.” The artist compares the effect to that created by theatrical gels, and his staging of still-life objects can be dramatic. In Memory Jar a small, high table, wrapped in white drapery, takes center stage. This makeshift altar is crowded with curiosities: a mirror to the outside world, various implements, a human skull and a beaded jar made by a friend. The spare left-hand side of the composition dissolves into diffuse, creamy sunlight; on the right, a shadowy alcove is lined with shelves and watched over by two skeletons. The pale, reflective floor dematerializes the space and makes the table seem to float. That sense of weightlessness is a common thread through this series of paintings, with simple geometric tables and easels providing compositional scaffolding. Occasionally, an oriental rug—another popular prop in Dutch still-lifes—helps define the floor, establishing a gravitational base for the expansive, featureless light wall of the backdrop. In Art Room the rug helps shape the space, which is further cut up by the sharp angles of a chrome table and chair. But the logic of the depicted room is destabilized by a square mirror on an easel and a partially seen triptych mirror, both reflecting fuzzy reflections of outside trees. In Coconut the rug parallels the straight edge of a simple wooden table, scattered with an enigmatic array of objects: a coconut, a pear, a tiny, ornate silver box, a broken eggshell, a metal pedestal dish topped by a menacing tool, bones and blue beads.
Bones inevitably suggest death in the vanitas tradition. But Sprick, like Georgia O’Keeffe, is drawn to them for primarily aesthetic reasons: “I simply like the way that bones look….I have a hard time leaving them alone because of their own inherent beauty.” The delicacy of the ribcage and fingers in Skeleton Table are indeed beautiful, especially in the eerie light of a blue-green filter, contrasting with the natural warmth of sunlight on the back wall. The alternate title for Skeleton Table is Requiem, and Sprick remarks it reminds him of a ritual sky burial. He also cites as less-obvious influences a surinomo woodblock print, for the high placement of the figure, and the installation artist Eva Hesse, for the apparently unmotivated cat’s cradle of string hanging from the ceiling and wrapping the table support. Sprick’s flair for the macabre is notable in two self-portraits, The Artist at Work, in which he is painting a skull, and The Skeleton of Daniel Sprick, in which he simply gazes out at the viewer shadowed by a skeletal doppelgänger, a tribute to Lovis Corinth and other nineteenth-century Romantics. Sprick’s floral subjects tend to be upstaged by these memento moris, although Lilacs is lovely. The white blossoms and green leaves dissolve into light and smears of paint, dominating a low table strewn with familiar objects, including an apple core, a wishbone and a half-peeled onion. While most of the works are based on direct observation, he occasionally uses photographic images from a computer screen. Seen in direct sunlight, two of these—Shadow Flower and Red Amaryllis—have a pasted-on look. They seem to sit on the surface, rather than inviting us into the mysterious spaces of his other paintings. Arcadia Fine Arts, 51 Greene Street, New York, New York 10013. Telephone (212) 965-1387. On the web at www.arcadiafinearts.com