Whether you approached from Grand Central Station or through chaotic Times Square at mid-day to the Sofitel, you found that you had already experienced at first hand the subject matter of most of Sonya Sklaroff ’s recent show, “New York Portraits.” The paintings, oils on panel, indulge in thickly applied paint with a glossy finish; some are quite dramatic, others more subdued. Although she also paints country landscapes and interiors, she is best known for her images of New York City. Her central theme, she says, is the contrast of light and dark with attention to the negative spaces within the composition, which is, of course, the concern of every artist.What gives her work its unique interest and power is her clever sense of color contrasts, along with reflections of light, depictions of shadows and smoky atmospheres. These special effects are particularly energetic in the vertical Red Pants on Bleecker (2009), which features a young woman striding along in high heels and bright persimmon-red bellbottoms. Long bluish shadows playing across a terra cotta pavement are foregrounded against a dim yellow taxi and dark brick buildings immersed in a lavender-blue hazy background. Her enchanting depictions of Greenwich Village and Lower Manhattan include Books (2009), a corner bookshop on a quiet corner east of Seventh Avenue. Sklaroff ’s characteristic use of long shadows creates here a late afternoon ambience heightened by color contrasts: the persimmon-red corner doors are thrown open below the dark blue and brick red of the building. Three young pedestrians, framed by the lit window behind them, cast their own shadows. A cyclist moves into the empty intersection toward the right edge of the painting, the red light on his front wheel balancing the reds behind him on the bookshop. In Three Umbrellas (2009), the umbrellas in primary colors—blue, red, yellow—are nestled together as the women holding them wait at the corner of Broadway and Houston Street to enter the black and white horizontal stripes of the crosswalk. A traffic light is blown sideways, providing one of Sklaroff ’s characteristic spots of red. In the middle distance, an American flag hangs limply from a building half painted in a brilliant blue, while beneath it stands a man in a lime-green shirt. Sklaroff ’s eye and brush meticulously capture compositions from the world around her that are both realistic and artful.
There is a quiet contemplative Hopperesque quality to the oblong Hallway View, depicting vertical rectangles of buildings against a lemony sky, as well as in Laundry on the High Line which presents a rust red fire escape draped with sea-green and lime-yellow clothes and casting shadows against an ochre wall. The unpeopled watertower paintings include the startling Downtown Red, a darkly silhouetted brown building, with occasional lit windows, looming against an unmodulated rich red sky. In the 24-inch-square Rain on Tenth, her mastery of reflected colored light on pavement is excellent. This painting is supremely evocative of a rainy late afternoon sky filled with diffused light; the implicit rushing splashy traffic noises are visually accented by reds, blues and yellows against glistening wet rain-grey surfaces.
Some of her busy street scenes could be more selective, less comprehensive of what the eye might see in real life. For example, there are possible miniature compositions that could be cropped off from the more inclusive, photographically observed composite. They could be shown beside the larger work or stand alone. Such simpler “sub-paintings” might give a more edgy and profound response to all the complexity that surrounds the viewer in the city, creating a moment of silence and perhaps an epiphany outside time and space. For example, the lower right-hand corner of Rain on Tenth contains a more primitive palette: grey shining pavements, a man in a black suit, a black-and-white umbrella, beneath which glows a reflected red light. The 30-inch-square Old Town Bar Restaurant contains rhythmic dark iron bars of superimposed fire escapes against the waning light, running up the dark building on the right hand side in the lemon and grey twilight. Their pattern is accentuated at the very bottom by the red and sea-green lights of the bar sign and the red hand of a “don’t walk” traffic light. Looming above is the signature sentinel, a distant dark grey watertower in the middle distance off to the left. The mood of nostalgia here is given as much by the shaded colors as by the exquisite composition that leads the eye westward into a fading sky.
Sklaroff, born in Philadelphia in 1970 and educated at the Rhode Island School of Design and Parsons, has been represented at various venues, sometimes simultaneously, since 2001, most recently in “New York Portraits Part II” at Sofitel in New York and Galerie SPARTS in Paris (both September 24–October 17, 2009). Her paintings can be viewed at GOARTONLINE.COM. Many young figurative painters are depicting the essential mysteries of our cityscapes and showing in New York today; Peter Colquhoun, Kim Cogan, John Silver and William Kennon spring to mind. Sklaroff is in good company. The Gallery at Sofitel is located at 45 West 44th Street, New York, New York 10036. Telephone (347) 739-8366.