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Isabel Emrich


Gallery openings can be uncomfortable affairs, with too many bodies jammed into small, unventilated spaces. Painter Isabel Emrich's "Progressions" opening last weekend at Skidmore Contemporary Art at Bergamot Station was no exception, but the work itself provided a visual oasis from the oppressive heat and humidity. It's her second one-woman show at Skidmore—always hospitable to contemporary realist painters—and Emrich's oils exude luxuriant cool.

Emrich's new series, all executed this year, is a dozen or so depictions of face-and-head fantasias of young women in various degrees of submersion in swimming pools. The aqua blues and greens of the swimming pools ripple and reflect on the warm skin tones and floating manes that flow across the picture planes. These are lyrical explorations that exult in color and the act of painting itself. They move easily between realism, symbolism and expressionism, on mostly large canvases.

Viewed from across the gallery, the eye blends the colors and brush strokes and swashes of these pieces, which often dance across the surfaces. Closer examination shows a canny mix of thin washes with squiggly tributaries for background areas, rich cascades of hair tones, and thicker impastos for surface overlays.

While the structural qualities (proportion, angles, placement, rendering) are solid, the paintings have an air of capricious improvisation. If it needs to be stated, that’s a tough one to pull off. Just 24 years old, Emrich is still developing, but her work is already quite impressive.

These paintings are dreamlike but they have understated but undeniable power. They are also concerned with beauty, a severely devalued quality in contemporary art. The high art establishment has sneered at beauty ever since it embraced modernism in the 20th Century. Even within the grudgingly rehabilitated genre of painting, artists, academics and critics seem to have a demographic allergy to beauty. And just who was it who decreed that the gruesome has more inherent value than beauty?

Kirk Silsbee, "Isabel Emrich's Refracting Beauty, In Solo Show," July 11, 2018,

Horizontal Embrace
Horizontal Embrace


Emrich works in an Expressionistic style that straddles both abstraction and figuration. Her brushwork is both strong and fluid—qualities that echo the nature of water, itself. With zeal, Emrich captures the 'special effects' water presents to the eye: chaotic refractions in multi-planar space, sparkling light effects, distorted shadows, rippled reflections, etc.—much of it in thick impasto paint, contrasted by passages of smooth vitality.

The artist forged her connection to the water growing up in Southern California. She loved the feeling of the cold salty ocean, and being under its big waves. Isabel offers a special debt of gratitude to her grandmother, who often took her up on the cliffs overlooking the water to plein-air paint. "Just paint what you see," her grandmother would tell her, taking after the French Impressionists of yore. In 2013, Emrich moved to San Francisco, fulfilling her dreams of studying at The Academy of Art University and receiving a BFA Painting and Drawing in 2016.

Emrich explores the sensations of peace and calm one feels submerged in water, the dynamism of moving through water, and of the body luxuriantly enveloped in it. A subject's body may float freely in a pose of complete relief, but the subject's face and limbs blur with the airy world above, as they break the surface. Isabel explores the dynamics of this boundary with tension and interplay at work—where air and water and light and body converge. Light plays on the surface, reflecting, dancing in endlessly fascinating patterns. But it also passes through the water, illuminating what is beneath, bringing out the color and life of the body. Different colors 'pop' through the light with the changing visuals implied in a moment’s time. Indeed, being in water is one of most explicit examples one can imagine of 'being in the moment.' Time stands still, and once and for all the past and future disappears. Zen-like, one is in the here and now.

Isabel brings her paintings to life with broad, energetic brush strokes, thick and thin paint qualities, and generous color variety—all hallmarks of Expressionism. In fact, one of her main inspirations is the expressionistic master Van Gogh.

Mirabelle Alan
June 2017