Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Mary Sauer’s Park City Exhibit Highlights the Ongoing Dialogue of Self and Society

A painting of a woman with long, flowing hair, wearing a lace top, set against a detailed blue and white toile background featuring classical figures and foliage.

Mary Sauer,” Figure with Toile Background,” oil, 11×14 in.

It’s unlikely anyone has tried to count the number of art students who begin their practice by drawing or painting people, though it’s possible a majority do. Then again, one of 15 Bytes better writers, Hannah Sandorf Davis, was able to track how art schools typically respond when such motives are reported by their students. She tells the story of Mary Rose Sauer, a U of U graduate who recounted serial efforts to discourage her before she left to advance her art in New York, the world’s last great art center, from which she has now returned to make a home for her family, raise her daughters, and carry on painting where she began.

In loyalty to her first love, 11 of the 15 works Sauer is showing at Meyer Gallery in Park City this month are figure portraits of women, while two more depict women in architectural interiors, and the other two are New York City street scenes: one of SoHo, an historic neighborhood of cast iron facades, the other an apartment probably in the same neighborhood. None of these breaks completely with her past work. On the other hand, why they’re different at all directly reflects the very difficulty Sauer’s teachers warned her about, and which prematurely ended the careers of so many of her potential colleagues.

Once trained, most portrait painters quickly settle into a niche, like lining hospital halls with images of donors or corporate lobbies with former CEOs. Sauer’s ambition lay in another direction, which was to produce Contemporary artworks, like those that reconfigure how we in her audience see ourselves and our endangered environment. To that end, she began her MFA program at the U of U by representing a subject she knew well: the pressure on young women to present themselves as perfect. In these works, women are shown seemingly trapped, like so much merchandise contoured to appeal to those who will acquire them. Some also struggle with motherhood, a coveted role that their predicament turns into configuring children as models of their own anxious plight. Her success with these images introduced an ongoing dilemma: while they signal to a grateful portion of the audience a fate they share in common, they must also slip undetected past the censors among the society they critique, who remain unaware of the discomfort, even misery she depicts in those who are seemingly fulfilling their social roles. Over time, as social media and influencers complicated young women’s options, the challenges her art represented only became more complex and baffling.

Over a decade of independent practice, Sauer continues to examine the dilemmas of appearance (for example, of wanting to be seen and admired without feeling invaded) which have only become more pressing as society focuses on the art and illusion of self-presentation. In her early practice, she anonymized her subjects by combining features of several models. That what motivates and validates her is always her own experience led her to favor one model who resembled her, while the daughters-in-peril seen in her early works became subjects of interest in their own rights.

As she continues to paint women’s lives as she knows them, her subjects have paradoxically had less to reveal about their unique predicament, their status as victims, and their images have become more about their universal presence. We now gaze at them not in the defunct belief that by doing so we can discover who they are, but in the stunning realization that by accurately seeing them, we can understand ourselves better.

Mary Sauer, “We are Cast into Crimson, Roses Surround Us in a Perfect Collision,” oil, 20 x 16 in.

Proof of this can of course be found in the works, but also in the titles, which with one exception forgo naming the subjects, but instead make observations, often poetic in nature, that seem drawn from life. The figure in “We Are Cast into Crimson, Roses Surround Us in a Perfect Collision” might appear to be fading into the background that so nearly matches her dress, but she could just as well be emerging from it. That her eyes appear sightless, then, could signal that they are no longer windows voyeurs may use to gaze into whatever they imagine they will find there. “What We Know Is Only a Moment of What is Ours” argues that our world is so much greater, offers so much more potential, than we know, a case made visually by her use of the medieval technique of painting on gold leaf, which suggests further that there’s still a place for romance in her world. And her most plaintive face asks this of viewers: “Do Not Look at Me with One Eye Closed.” With one eye closed we lose our greatest visual achievement, stereoscopic vision, and without the third dimension see less of her than is there.

Sauer’s early work was marked by a climax of realism, after which she began to explore greater expressive possibilities, including both more spontaneous brushwork and techniques like gold grounds. In “Tiny Ticks of the Clock Snatch Me from My Dream Land,” the subject might be sleeping or lost in thought, while her surroundings are edged and marked by streaks of gold that convey her altered sensibility to the viewer. One of the influences on her work is that of John Singer Sargent, whose many scandals included his having the audacity to draw directly on the canvas with his brush. That’s precisely what Sauer does in “Tiny Ticks,” where the gold underpainting comes through in highlights.

A painting of a woman lying on a bed with a quilted headboard, in a relaxed pose, with soft lighting and detailed fabric textures.

Mary Sauer, “Tiny Ticks of the Clock Snatch Me from My Dream Land,” oil, 11 x 14 in.

There is much to see and think about in each of these works, but one worth noting here is “A Radiance Breaks the Afternoon Gray.” Here the small space surrounding the figure is replaced by a vintage kitchen, perhaps where Sauer lived in New York’s SoHo district. The model may be her double, making it even more like a self-portrait in situ. Here the subject’s personal style of presentation bridges the gap between the antique construction and modern appliances, just as Mary Sauer’s painting brings venerable means of representation to bear on a contemporary perspective. So she goes on finding ways to invigorate the portrait and close the gap between this bedrock artistic process and an audience that wants to find how it fits into their lives.


Mary Sauer, Meyer Gallery, Park City, through July 19

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