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Sarah Emerson unearths troubling territory in Underland

Local painter loses her innocence in a dark, abstract solo show

Friday April 27, 2012 03:00 pm EDT

Cuteness may be wearing on Sarah Emerson’s nerves. The Atlanta artist is known for her toxic Disney paintings in a macaron color palette of raspberry, orange blossom, and cinnamon accessorized with the manufactured sparkle of rhinestones. The star of Emerson’s show has often been a wary deer tentatively walking through sick and pretty scenes, an icon of innocence navigating a compromised world.


But something wicked this way comes. Darkness has overtaken the artist’s latest body of work, Underland. The magical forest — always a sinister kind of enchanted in Emerson’s lexicon — has decomposed into something more nightmarish. Gone are the wolves and the deer, the ravens and other totems of virtue and mayhem, leaving behind a paint-by-numbers-style killing field.

Emerson has taken one more step deeper into abstraction with Underland. Her gooey color palette remains, along with the oozing forms of her dream forests, a rotting Candy Land. Though still recognizable as forests, their inner workings have gone weird and metaphorical, as if the unconscious was bubbling out of the ground like crude oil. The trees and foliage drip and run, threatening to slide off of the canvas and creating a powerful sense of obliteration.

An inescapable brew of violence and death lurks at the margins of Emerson’s paintings. Like colorful crepe paper hung at a funeral, the paintings are punctuated by thick stripes of color. In “Sea of Trees III,” effluvial lines of hot pink and marigold yellow drift through the air like some evil, intoxicating poison leading you to your doom. Emerson recently explained on Atlanta’s AM 1690 that those pink and gold lines of color have a real-world reference point. The paintings are based on an actual place, the Sea of Trees in Japan at the base of Mt. Fuji. The forest has become a legendary suicide destination. Search parties and family members often use brightly colored ropes to help find their way out of the thick woods. By the time you consider the final painting in the show, “Black Pool,” any inkling of bucolic tranquility has been erased by the death wail rictus of a skull figure in the painting’s foreground. The trees appear to bleed into the black river, as an enchanted glade turns haunted.

Stare deeply into Emerson’s paintings and you’ll find countless eyes staring back at you. The skulls that were once such prominent figures in Emerson’s work have re-emerged in abstract form. They are enormous cartoon heads and eyes peeping from the edges of the painting, and blinking out from the churning rivers and melting forests. Blood-red tendrils hang from the trees, and clusters of pinks, reds, and tans suggest some cartoon rendering of an open wound. The felled trees that fall across the painting suggest broken bones. The waterfalls cascade into a horrifying oblivion.

I’ll cop to a sentimental nostalgia for Emerson’s fauna. There was something about innocence corrupted, the trauma and pain of good coexisting in a troubled world that spoke to me in those wide-eyed fawns. While Emerson’s move toward abstraction seems more cerebral, less apt to massage the pleasure-sensors of representation, I miss her collision of those innocent animal stand-ins for a human presence. Underland makes it possible to both enjoy the path Emerson is taking while also romanticizing the past in this prolific, exploratory artist’s oeuvre.