ABOVE: SARGENT'S DAUGHTERS' MEREDITH ROSEN (LEFT) AND ALLEGRA LAVIOLA. PHOTO BY KATIE FISCHER.
At what point, in the context of our everyday conversations about modern art, does "contemporary" become a dirty word? If not dirty, then perhaps "sloppy" is more appropriate. We latch onto the talent and prestige of the masters who came before us to bring dignity and a sense of class to our modern efforts, but without paying respect to their skill, their training, and especially their time laboring over each single work of art.
John Singer Sargent eventually admitted sometime around 1907, before he painted his last self-portrait, that he was pretty much burned out from the process. It often took him up to a year to complete one portrait—a "wretched" process, by his own estimation. Still, the self-scrutiny and passion evident in a single jewel on the strap of the pale and seductive shoulder of Virginie Gautreau in Sargent's infamous Portrait of Madame X should remind contemporary artists that the right to creation must be earned.
Currently exhibiting at Sargent's Daughters, a gallery owned and operated by Allegra LaViola and Meredith Rosen in Chinatown, is a group exhibition also called "Sargent's Daughters." Forty female artists were asked to contribute works that in some way pay homage to John Singer Sargent, albeit in some loose, abstract manner. Rosen and LaViola's homage to Sargent is an acknowledgment of his unique place in art history: a bridge from the classical to the modern.
Yale MFA graduate Jordan Casteel's Galen (2014) is an obvious standout. Her skills as a painter and familiarity with post-Impressionist artists Matisse and Cézanne are obvious in both her work's unconventional colors as well as its composition. It makes complete sense that a solo show by Casteel will be taking place directly after Sargent's Daughters comes down. Robin Williams' Mr. X (2014) tackles the assignment (the reversal of gender roles), as well as Sargent's best-known work, head on, showing impressive use of light and the playful and slightly restrained positioning of the male form. Jenna Gribbon's Isabella in Conversation is a sultry and straightforward Dionysian portrait that breathes with balmy life. Rebecca Campbell's Call Her Green and the Winters Cannot Fade Her (2012), essentially a still life, shows tremendous hand control as her oils are layered with stark sweeps of passion and vivid colors.
Without any editorial bias (she's an Interview contributor, and took the above portrait), it's Katie Fischer's Untitled 01 (2014) that radiates the peculiar magic for which Sargent was both celebrated and momentarily maligned. The large-scale photograph shows a young, attractive, and seemingly complicit young woman taking a "selfie" as a seated circle of teenage boys prepare to spark the quintessential NYC blunt. It's a real and modern urban moment whose immediate and lasting effects feel as timeless and seductive as the city itself.
KURT MCVEY: So your gallery is called Sargent's Daughters, and the show is also called "Sargent's Daughters." I imagine this show been a long time coming for both of you?
MEREDITH ROSEN: Yes and no. Every show we do is important to us.
MCVEY: But more "yes" I would presume?
ALLEGRA LAVIOLA: The gallery title explores the legacy of Sargent in a more abstract, large-ranging way. This show is more specifically interested in female artists exploring the same legacy.
MCVEY: Why "Sargent's Daughters" initially? What drew each of you in personally to John Singer Sargent's work and his legacy?
LAVIOLA: The idea was that we were interested in presenting contemporary work by artists who are working in a traditional media but in an imitative manner, the same way that John Singer Sargent was a portrait and landscape painter, which is very traditional, but he was doing it in a different way.
MCVEY: Were you familiar with most of these artists going into the show? Was there an application process?
LAVIOLA: We were mostly familiar with everybody. Once we decided on the idea for the exhibition, every time we came across an artist we liked or thought would work, we asked them to contribute immediately.
ROSEN: We've been planning this throughout the year and we're constantly looking at work.
MCVEY: Is your artist roster throughout the regular calendar year comprised mainly of female artists?
ROSEN: Not necessarily. No.
LAVIOLA: We don't represent anyone exclusively yet, being that we just opened in November, but we will eventually. So far we've had a pretty even mix of male and female artists.
ROSEN: It's really just about the work.
LAVIOLA: This is not a feminist gallery. This show happens to be all women because we thought that would be an interesting concept because Sargent painted so many women. You have all these beautiful portraits of all these ladies and he was so popular for that, but now, we're exploring how female contemporary artists are continuing that legacy. How do they become active from the passive portrait?
ROSEN: It's really just for this exhibition.
MCVEY: What was the conversation like in selecting the name of your gallery, not just for this particular show? Why him?
LAVIOLA: We really went through a lot of names and we wanted something that immediately conveyed the message we were trying to get across, which is, that we want to talk about historical art, more specifically American art with European influences, involving someone working in a traditional way, while somehow also being very innovative.
ROSEN: I should emphasize, this is a contemporary art gallery. We're trying to show work that's pushing the limits of contemporary art today.
LAVIOLA: John Singer Sargent was an American living in Europe who was somehow both popular and risqué. He encapsulated all these things we were trying to get across.
MCVEY: Are you interested in any contemporary artists who work exclusively in portraits? Also, are there artists who are capable of bringing a meticulous, masterful sense of skill, like Sargent, back to galleries, or does contemporary art always have to "look like art?"
LAVIOLA: There's room for lots of things. You have Lucien Freud, who was doing a lot of portrait and commission-based work. He is extremely popular and well known. You had people like John Currin who is also very figurative. Will portraiture ever have the same kind of weight and significance? I don't think so. People demand more from their art nowadays. They don't exactly want to see someone sitting by their pool house, or in their living room surrounded by the gilded luxuries of life.
MCVEY: I don't know. I think laziness is more of an obstacle. We deify our celebrities and social debutantes more than ever these days. It could be interesting. Was there a particular artist in this show that pleasantly surprised you with how they approached the theme?
LAVIOLA: Nobody. I would be not happy if I talked to artists and they suddenly did something that was 180 degrees away from what we thought they were doing.
ROSEN: It would be frightening. There are no surprises.
LAVIOLA: Amy Wilson made a piece using hand-made lace. That was a medium that she doesn't normally work in, so in a way, I guess that was a little surprising.
ROSEN: We have an ongoing dialogue with the artists. We're with them every step of the way.
MCVEY: Would you be interested in doing this concept with 40 male artists?
ROSEN: We're open to anything, but it's not in the near future.
"SARGENT'S DAUGHTERS" IS ON VIEW AT SARGENT'S DAUGHTERS THROUGH JULY 26.