Trouble Lurks Beneath the Surface in Margo Selski’s Utopic Paintings

Artist Margo Selski likens herself to the character Prospero from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, an exiled king who uses magic to control other characters and is often interpreted as the playwright-within-the-play. Selski similarly authors her own fantastical world, depicting curious subjects that are both products of her own imagination and of classic fairy tales. 

Merging the styles of Old Flemish masterpieces, 19th-century society, and inspirations from her own Southern Gothic upbringing, Selski creates paintings that tell wistful and imaginative narratives. In her new series, “A Curious and Wonderful Bewilderment,” she features heroines clad in sumptuous Elizabethan robes and with long braids swinging, into precarious and odd situations. These characters loosely resemble classical fairytale protagonists such as Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, and Alice from Alice in Wonderland, although some figures, such as the androgenous Theo from The Daughters of Atlantis, Passing the Torch (2013), are contemporary creations. Selski juxtaposes steampunk props with Victorian sensibilities, inserting gas masks, egg cyclones, and other contraptions to heighten  the sense of uneasiness within her work.

To give her paintings an antique look, Selski applies a layer of beeswax to the paintings, scratches at the surface, and then fills the cracks with paint, thereby producing a craquelure effect. She keeps the color palette muted with  grays and light blues and frequently employs floral patterns to further the Victorian aesthetic. She has said that she uses these hues intentionally to develop an initial sense of calmness around her work, only later to expose the strange tales that lurk beneath the surface. Selski wants the viewer to interpret the pieces through their subjective experiences.

“I create a theatre and people it with an ornate cast: queens, mothers, children, predators, prey, florae, faunae,” the artist has said. “They live in airless, still places where each creature knows whom she should love or hate. I wish they could be kept in these poses. But then, the balances become uncertain. Relationships become inverted. Mothers become children. Children become empty eggs. Princesses become wolves. Eggs, children, families, all start to divide and become something unrecognizable. Soon, no one knows how they should think or feel. My sparkling utopia becomes unstable.”

In Selski’s fanciful universe, characters exist in the ambiguous spaces between past and present, good and evil, and imagination and reality. It is perhaps this uncertainty that makes her paintings both intriguing and unnerving. 

Sola Agustsson

A Curious and Wonderful Bewilderment” is on view at RJD Gallery, Sag Harbor, Feb. 14–Mar. 14, 2015.

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