Kate Lehman and Sarah Lamb

Sarah Lamb, Mousse au Chocolat, 2005 Courtesy Spanierman Gallery, New York CityJacob Collins’s Water Street Atelier has become a magnet for talented artists eager to explore the realist tradition. In March Spanierman Gallery in New York City presented recent paintings by two of Collins’s students, Kate Lehman (b. 1968) and Sarah Lamb (b. 1971), who are doing remarkable work in a variety of genres—still life, landscape, figure, interior. Young artists can be highly resourceful in acquiring the kind of education they feel they need. Born in London and raised in Paris, Lehman studied at the Académies Roederer and Lecompte in Paris and at the Minnesota River School before settling in New York. Her still lifes have an offbeat edge: an animal head juxtaposed with a chop and gleaming butcher’s scales on a tiled shop counter; an ivory satin corset on a wire hanger evoking an absent figure steeped in fetishistic romance. Lehman’s portraits are particularly strong. Portrait of an Artist (2005) is in the slightly unusual medium of oil on panel on gold ground. The half-length figure emerges from the bituminous sfumato of the brushy background, the gold smoldering just beneath the surface. The fresh face and hands of this alert young woman are set off by the velvety texture of her dark jacket, and light sculpts her cheekbones and outlines wayward tendrils of hair. The no-nonsense charisma of the subject seems a good match for the painterly confidence of the artist. The relationship of the contemporary realist to history is always an intriguing problem. Lehman’s In Repose (2005) owes much to the nineteenth-century academic nude, although the sleeping model’s tattoo adds a contemporary edge. The spaghetti-box format emphasizes the elongation of the figure, while the abstracted brown and gold setting cocoons the body, in shades of pearl and rose, with a modernist indistinctness.

Lamb, born in Petersburg, Virginia, and reared in Georgia, studied at the …cole Albert Defois in Les Cerqueux, France, and the Art Students League in New York City, as well as at Collins’s atelier. Her strongest work tackles a humble genre with a distinguished pedigree, the kitchen still life, in the manner of the eighteenth-century French master Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. Lamb’s Mousse au Chocolat (2005) includes a tour de force depiction of a copper pot, its reflective surface a convex mirror of the rest of the room. Formally, the interplay between various curved surfaces—bowl, spoon, eggs, pot—and the sharper edges of chocolate chunks and table edge is visually intriguing. Within a limited palette, texture becomes especially important, with the brightness of the copper set off against the muted sheen of the tabletop and the matte surface of the eggshells. This is the sort of thing William Merritt Chase did so well in his brown-palette phase, when the lessons of the Düsseldorf academy were still fresh and he had not yet fallen under the sway of the Impressionists. Lamb’s Proscuitto (2005) uses fewer objects, but the play of diagonals makes for a bold composition. The wooden cutting board juts out over the cloth-covered table at an angle, and the crossed serving pieces—a knife and fork with chunky wooden handles—heighten the formal dynamic. The almost tactile pleasures you experience in a really good realist painting are evident in the dusky red of the meat, the luminous cream of the fat, the worn wood of the cutting board and the muted silver gleam of the blade. Lamb gives the tableau a shot of Caravaggio-style drama with strong, assured lighting. Still lifes focusing on food always carry an undercurrent of the vanitas theme, on the edge between appetite and decay. Here, Lamb treats her subject—a simple piece of meat that is part of a great culinary tradition—with respect.

Kate Lehman, Portrait of an Artist, 2005 Courtesy Spanierman Gallery, New York CityLehman and Lamb were also featured in “Interiors,” the winter show at John Pence Gallery in San Francisco. (They have both been featured in solo exhibitions there, and Lamb has another exhibition opening November 17, 2006.) Both works featured at Pence employed the artists’ characteristically restrained palettes and observational skills, and both depicted windowless interiors. Lehman’s fairly routine Bathroom (2005) is suffused in murky, ocher light. The old-fashioned fixtures and distressed surfaces are divided across a diptych, and splitting the continuous composition in two is an interesting choice, adding to the antiphonal claustrophia of a private space. Lamb’s more appealing The Saltire Pub (2005) is similarly unpeopled, but the warm wood and glowing amber light fixtures make the public space feel welcoming. Both paintings call attention to the surface texture of brushwork. Lehman and Lamb take a flexible approach to paint handling, sometimes achieving smooth and meticulous surfaces, sometimes going for an effect closer to modernist painterliness. Working with a modest range of conventional subjects, they are demonstrating the formal possibilities of representational painting today.  “Recent Paintings by Kate Lehman and Sarah Lamb” was on view March 1–April 1, 2006, at Spanierman Gallery, 45 East 58th Street, New York, New York 10022. Telephone (212) 832-0208. On the Web at www.spanierman.com

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2006, Volume 23, Number 2