Sarah Letovsky: Miles From Home

Text by Stanzie Tooth

I look in the mirror. I am met with my reflection but stare past myself, lost in thought; of the day ahead, of the immediacy of the morning, of next year, of ten years from now. Astounded by this mental clustering, from the outside I appear frozen, staring blankly at my face. 

To be or not to be - that is the question Sarah Letovsky’s new portraits seem to pose. For decades we’ve talked about reclaiming the female gaze in painting, but this assertion is most often made in reaction and response to the other. Letovsky’s women (for they are all women), seem to look inward. They are questioning. They look out of the frame of the canvas - to what? These are less the furtive glances of someone in address to another, but more the gaze of someone deep in thought. There is tension in that look, an unease. It is active, yet fixed. 

Letovsky’s paintings are all of women at a particular stage of life - that time of life where one has to decide. Faced with questions of the future, of biology, of tradition. All of these questions are posed in tandem and in conflict with one’s sense of individuality and personal ambition. This dichotomy isn’t the same as the one presented to our fore-mothers, when options were more limited and to take the road less travelled bore a different kind of stigma. Yet, in our contemporary moment of multiplicities, it is easy to get mired by abundance. Born to an age of introspection, the faces of Letovsky’s women are marked with these questions. They are expectant. 

These faces could also be seen as mirroring the face of the artist herself. This series marks a transitional point in the artist’s work and life. Having spent the last two years in Edmonton untethered from the familiar surroundings of family, this work reflects a sentiment of suspended animation. Each face is imbued with the uncertainty of loss, hope and anticipation.

It cannot be forgotten that these are paintings. Vija Celmins once remarked “I feel that the image is a sort of armature where I hang my marks and make my art.” For Letovsky, the portrait is the armature, the support, for wild and wonderful expressions in paint.  Sarah is a graceful painter. Her marks are crisp, yet wispy. Her sense of colour allures and advances. She can somehow make quiet moments from brash prismacolor. Continuing the imaging strategies of her painting forebears like Alex Katz and Janet Werner, Letovsky picks up the torch of contemporary portraiture and carries it forward. Where Katz and Werner look at the female form, Letovsky seems to look through it, unafraid to claim this space as semi-biographical. 

Where her past series focused on women depicting themselves for an audience, these latest works, much like the artist, have shifted with age and experience. Not only do these portraits reflect this transitional moment, but they are presented alongside a poignant still life. In “The Painter's Table”, tulips and an egg mark this scene - symbols of hope, rebirth, nature, the cycles of life. It alludes to the allegory of passover, a holiday laden with reflection about tradition, family, and displacement. The only human intrusion in the painting is the artist's hand, tentatively holding a glass of wine. This can be read as a gesture of celebration and perhaps ritual, but seemingly caught in a moment of pause. When considering this scene alongside Letovsky’s portraits, the accumulated feeling is that of a comma, a punctuation between two moments. What is to follow is trapped somewhere deep in the gaze. 

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