Daniel Sprick’s spring exhibition (March 19–April 10, 2011) at Arcadia Fine Arts in New York City demonstrated how to combine traditional skills and themes with a contemporary sensibility. This is a challenge faced by many realist painters today, and Sprick has found a very personal path through the labyrinth. Distinctly, I Remember (2011) brings together some signature motifs: a modern interior, a skeleton figure, cool, diffuse light and ambiguous spatial relationships. Sprick loves bones, both for their linear grace and for the frisson of mortality, that shiver of memento mori, what Emily Dickinson called “zero at the bone.” Bones, especially the human skull, appear throughout iconographic history, in the cells of penitent saints and in the vanitas still lifes of Flemish and Dutch artists. Sprick’s favorite artists include Van Eyck and Hugo van der Goes, deadpan realists whose pictures were saturated with religious meaning, and Vermeer, the secular poet of interior light. These influences are all at work in Distinctly, I Remember, although the work is in no way a historicist pastiche. Despite the faint echo of Poe’s “The Raven” in the title, there is nothing gothic about the interior, with its sharp-edged metal furnishings. The star of the still life is an erect bird skeleton, a striking bit of hipster-paleontologist desktop décor. An arrangement of rectangles provides compositional scaffolding, but this clarity of shapes is undermined, in a pleasurably disorienting way, by the panel on the easel, which perfectly echoes the table in front of it. Is the panel a mirror or a picture within a picture, another feat of illusionistic painting? The soft light, coming from unseen windows, adds to the aura of mystery.
The mounted bird skeleton recurs in a number of Sprick’s recent paintings. In Snow Bird (2011), the artist plays with the dynamic between interior and exterior. (Sprick works in his Colorado home, a plain contemporary structure with large areas of window looking out on an ordinary yard.) The eponymous creature gets the spotlight in Snow Bird, its bones dramatically outlined by warm-toned lamplight. The spare but intriguing still-life elements include separated halves of a broken shell. The backdrop is the nighttime, snow-blurred view out the window. Lilacs and Bird, from 2010 (cover), changes the scale: the bird skeleton looks small and fragile in the context of a more opulent still life, with branches of tender-petaled lilac in blue-and-white ceramic jars, a neat allusion to the Chinese export ware and indigenous Delft pots of Dutch still lifes. Sprick adds another object with seventeenth-century Dutch associations, a geometric oriental carpet—in deep red, black and cream—used as a table covering.
Flowers, emblems of youth and beauty, and bones, a reminder of life’s precariousness, are often combined in a familiar art historical trope, one that Sprick seems comfortable with re-interpreting for a modern audience. But his appreciation for and curiosity about the visually sensuous quality of physical objects remains paramount. He finds bones beautiful even when they are not articulated into an objet d’art, as they are in his bird skeleton. In Carcass and Carcass No. 2 (both 2011), the dismembered bones of some large animal are scattered across a polished wood floor. Despite the starkness of the subject matter and the untidiness of the arrangement, Sprick finds aesthetic satisfaction, especially in the gothic-tracery silhouette of a ribcage. Plum Blossoms (2011) is more conventionally attractive. The flowers are spectacular, especially as set off by a deep blue vase with a metallic sheen. But the artist keeps the sense of luxury in check by using a raw-wood support for the still life; levels of clean horizontal lines add astringency to the composition. In the background, three blurred framed landscapes suggest that outdoor nature needs to be kept in its place. Sprick is, above all, a painter of interiors, the private world of the artist where objects seem to carry their own enigmatic backstories. Other genres are represented in the exhibition, including nudes, skillfully and frankly depicted, but Sprick’s world view is best encapsulated by his haunting images of things—both curious and everyday—caught in the light. Arcadia Fine Arts, 51 Greene Street, New York, New York 10013. Telephone (212) 965-1387. On the web at www.arcadiafinearts.com