Thursday, September 8, 2011

Isabel Samaras: The Geeky Glory of the Classic Form

by Sara Crow

While wandering through my favorite quirky odds and ends shop a couple years ago, I glanced at a shelf and had to do a double-take. At first, I thought I'd glimpsed an image of classic art--a renaissance painting whose title dangled on the edges of my memory. It was an image of a lone woman in an outdoor scene, holding a silver platter, a fire dancing on its surface. A goldfinch looks on from a nearby branch. I looked again. This wasn't just any woman--this was the Bride of Frankenstein! At that moment, I fell entirely in love with Isabel Samaras's work and have been crazy about it ever since.

This is what I'd seen.
Song of the Goldfinch, by Isabel Samaras
Warning: "Adult" images after the break. You've been warned. So no bitching if you see boobies, 'kay? We're all big kids here.

Isabel Samaras is a name that every geek gurrl should know in order to be eligible for her geeky gurrl membership card. Isabel lives and works in San Fancisco, creating unique pieces that commonly meld the unlikely subjects of classic art and popular geek culture.

Secrets of the Batcave
"Sci-fi showed me there were 'alternate realities,' places and times where things could be different. Fate and history weren't boring straight lines--they were flexible and alive. They could be changed," she comments in her book, On Tender Hooks. Isabel began to imagine some of her favorite shows in these "alternate realities:" What if Batman and Catwoman actually got together? What if Gomez & Morticia enjoyed a wild night with Herman & Lily? The possibilities seemed endless!

Isabel started by creating her wonderful, kinky worlds on lunch boxes she discovered in Spanish Harlem in New York City. After moving to San Fancisco, a friend suggested she begin creating work on (appropriately enough) TV trays, launching a series of pieces that you probably wouldn't find sitting in the corner waiting to be used at Grandma's house (or maybe you would--I guess it depends on the coolness of your grandma!).

Perpetua (The Bride)
Vina (The Longing)
Eventually, Isabel began to be inspired not only by the potential for these "alternate realities," but also by the work of the great masters, and began to re-imagine her favorite TV characters in the style of these classic and beloved artists. She also began to widen her subject matter, moving from portraying TV characters to the classic characters of Universal monster films (as seen in my first experience with her work in Song of the Goldfinch).  These pieces were, in many cases, her own take on some classic works, not with the recognizable characters of the Universal films, but by taking the idea--the Bride of Frankenstein, in the case of the image above--and making an original piece in a classic style with a subtle nod to the inspiration.

This is where Samaras is at her best, in my opinion--when she subverts the expectations of an image, taking something we expect to be classic art and throws in subtle nods to horror and popular culture and more, implying depth to stories people are usually happier to ignore as "trite." These examinations of the characters and their stories create a real relevance that can cause her audience to re-think their initial dismissal of some of the stories that make up the mythologies of the twentieth century, putting them in conversation with history and elevating them in the process.

The Bluebird of Happiness
I also love when she manages to create an entirely unique work in a classic style that is gleefully subversive. As Samaras points out in her blog article about creating "The Bluebird of Happiness," pictured in all its naughty glory to the right, porn has existed as long as the captured image itself (LOVE the goat/Pan porn in particular--oo that's fun to say!). I love this painting specifically because it celebrates female sexuality in the style of an era that was particularly repressed, and I love the fact that she illustrates this so splendidly by literally putting the sexuality of the image "undercover." This is one of those fantastic "double-take" paintings that she's so great at creating that also manages to express a subject that's still pretty taboo in our society--a woman's right to enjoy the sexual experience (ohmygod, women have ORGASMS!? Seriously!?).

Mocking Box: The Rap Wars

Samaras's most recent work shows an emphasis on this conversation between what would be considered "classic" art and unexpected elements of popular culture. Her most recent show, "Heavy Gretel," displays this shift in interest from pop culture to the world of fairy tales that she's been making over the past year or so in art that depicts not only the Hansel and Gretel myth, but everything from Red Riding Hood to a naughty depiction of "The Tyger" by William Blake. Even the fairy tale creatures themselves have been "remixed." Check out her great article in the most recent issue of Hi-Fructose, at pretty much every conceivable newsstand and Barnes & Noble that carries anything more than People and TV Guide for more about Isabel and her art, or find her all over the internet:   

Isabel on the Interwebs
Isabel's Blog, "i feel it too: Notes from the studio"

And if you love what you see, you absolutely MUST pick up her book, On Tender Hooks. Or, if you're lucky enough to be in the San Francisco area, do what I can't and look up her work and experience it personally. Art is ALWAYS better in person, and I will be jealous of you forever if you get to experience her work in person in all its geeky glory!

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