Vice and virtue in art

September 28, 2006

The power of contradiction in Erik Sandberg’s latest exhibition, Contrary, is not to be underestimated despite the show’s small size and intimate setting. The artist’s three double-sided panel paintings challenge the viewer to question her perception of the differences between virtue and vice.

This theme of contrasts strikes the viewer first. Starting from the layout of the installations, whose double sides display a virtue and its opposing vice, to the paintings’ style where modernity and tradition mix, the cycle of the works narrows the gap between the artist and his audience.

Contrary presents solitary figures, some standing or kneeling on plinths, in poses which evoke the contrasts between classical and Renaissance sculpture. By uniting painting and sculpture, Sandberg exposes the fluidity of art forms, leading the viewer to question also the fluidity between the notions of virtue and vice.

The artist chooses to focus on three pairs of merits and malfeasance—courage versus cowardice, truth versus deceit and charity versus avarice. Yet, none of the virtuous, statuesque figures appear to embody a modern view of perfection.

The wicked opposition doesn’t appear significantly more perverse. The mirror-like rendering of the lifelike models allows the viewer to capture the double edge of human nature, where the elements of sin do not lose out in visual attractiveness. Likewise, the virtuous are often shown with grotesque twists such as Charity feeding a bird worms from her own tongue.

Birds are an important theme of the compositions, as is the idea of animals in general. Deceit cloaks her child in sheepskin and Courage defeats a person masked as a giant rabbit, not dissimilar to the prophetic character in Donnie Darko. The close interaction of the human models with the animals suggests humanity’s inextricable link to the animal kingdom, but the apparent negative portrayal of the animals suggests that the moral complexities people encounter separate the human and animal worlds.

Compared to Sandberg’s earlier works, which experimented with perspectives and chaotic actions in the manner of the fantastical Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch, Contrary’s figures are much more isolated in their themes and positions. What remains the same is the painter’s investigation of the technique of glazing color over the monochromatic painting, creating an ethereal skin tone for his characters and highlighting the transcendent nature of morality.

The contrasting compositions, though seemingly simple, facilitate debate due to their grotesque yet surprisingly seductive nature. The Rubenesque figures dressed in modern undergarments link past traditions with contemporary ideas. The few reminders of everyday life, such as a supermarket bottle of milk or Cowardice’s Y-fronts, force the viewer to explore their own character and consider the battles between virtue and vice that they experience every day. The results of this exploration are often as shocking as the paintings themselves.

Erik Sandberg’s Contrary is on show Tues.-Sat., from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. until Oct. 28th at Conner Contemporary Art, 1730 Connecticut Ave—2nd floor, 202-588- 8750. Admission is free.

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