Dramatic Flair: Painter Natalie Frank Flourishes in Contradiction

Dramatic Flair: Painter Natalie Frank Flourishes in Contradiction
Natalie Frank
(Photo by Phil Chang)

Natalie Frank began to see in three dimensions for the first time last summer. For an artist widely recognized—despite her very young career—for her figurative paintings and draftsmanship; for someone, in other words, who makes a living by looking, the moment her doctor attached a corrective prism to her glasses was, to say the least, a bizarre and poignant experience. “I started weeping,” she says. “I was looking at the corners of doors, at the edges of cabinets—I had never seen something recede or extend into space like that before. I went outside and felt like I was on some kind of acid trip.” A series of childhood eye surgeries had caused her to grow up receiving sensory input from only her left eye, but her brain had compensated: She had believed she perceived the world no differently from anyone else.

That Frank became a painter has a sort of backward logic to it, for her mind was already translating the world in a reverse painterly manner: from two dimensions into three, whereas representational painters translate the visible three dimensions into two. Frank feels the experience of seeing in 3-D has already had a huge effect on her paintings, in part because so much of her work exploits the tension between flatness and depth and between abstraction and figuration. Indeed, a glance at the large canvases lining her Bushwick, Brooklyn, studio—awaiting her solo show this month at Fredericks & Freiser, in New York—suggests that the years of extra effort her mind was forced to expend only added to the muscularity of her perceptual ability. In Praying in Bed, from 2011, passages of scumbled brushwork define the forearms of a recumbent woman, while comparably softened planes of peach shot through with blue in the recessed area of the depicted room capture light spreading across the floor. Frank is that rare thing in contemporary art, a virtuoso with a paintbrush. She creates operatic compositions of color and marks of every sort, from the nimble delicacies of the praying figure’s frilly bra to the arpeggios of pinks in her knobby hands, all of which contrast with the hard, abstract planes that construct the room she lies in. Operatic. I use the word not only because her pieces are theatrical—as she says, “large and confrontational, visceral and expressive”—but also because the artist is a fan of the form, of Wagner in particular. And there’s something of those hybrid dramas that matches her sprawling energy. “The stage is a place where people can try on different roles and act out their fantasies,” she exclaims. “It’s carnival time.”

A native Texan, Frank spent her first 10 years in Austin and the next eight in Dallas. She began drawing the nude at 13, under the tutelage of a neighbor. Dallas being the land of militant Christianity, life drawing wasn’t allowed in her high school. “They tried to kick me out for pinning up drawings to speak with my art teacher about them,” she recounts. As a compromise, the school eventually allowed her to draw nude women and nude self-portraits. However, despite high grades and being a National Merit finalist, she was kept out of the Honor Society—“they labeled me a pornographer.” She began life drawing seriously at 16, during intensive summer sessions at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London, and continued at Yale, from which she earned her BA in studio art in 2002. She received an MFA from Columbia in 2006.

For all her facility with pencil and brush, Frank is quick to point out that it is impossible not to be “honestly ambivalent about painting the figure now.” It has been years since she painted from life; she relies instead on photographs, historical images, and an active imagination. She remains intellectually engaged with figurative painting by tackling problems of narrative. Her explorations range from gouache drawings of Grimm’s fairy tales—the unexpurgated version—to sounding the limits of storytelling in large-scale painted pictures.

If there’s a theme running through this work, it is transfiguration. She stages her canvases, creating scenarios in which characters undergo various changes. Frank thinks of them as “liminal spaces where the women—women are the main actors, the men a supporting cast—can play out who they really want to be.” The mutations are explicit in Trying on Heads, 2012, where the seated figure of a woman, blacked out but for her eye, takes her place in a line of animal heads, but are more oblique in other pictures. One, Two, 2011, depicts either a graphic sex act or a crouching woman emerging from a naked man’s abdomen, a perverse birthing. Even her primary source material, most of which comes from photographs of people the artist costumes, lights, and shoots, depends on the transformative power of theatricality.

Frank’s description of opera, “a constructed reality but also completely genuine,” applies equally to the results of her efforts. What makes her compositions so dynamic and dramatically absorbing is the way Frank attends to the narrative flow within the picture itself. “It’s important for me to move between different modes of painting,” she explains. “In the same way that the characters are moving from figure to figure and form to form, the actual painting itself is also doing that.” In other words, the transitions within each painting, be they across forms or methods of paint application, tell their own story. “I want it to slow down in parts and be more sensitive and detailed—but,” she adds, “I work really fast to try to keep it fresh.” Flatness and modeling are almost syncopated in Exorcism, 2012. Its surface pulses, the fleshy lips and cheeks of the protagonist—a nude blond arching in pained ecstasy on a bed—protruding out at the viewer, in counterpoint to the slight impasto of light splashing on the wall behind her, while the painting’s flat areas establish a similar rhythm, the woman’s outlined shoulder occupying a shallow space that appears somehow both closer to us and further removed from the exorcist’s planar stomach. It’s as though the play of pigments across the canvas echoes the questions raised by what those colors describe: What is inside and what outside? Are our demons separable from what we are?

Although Frank thinks of them all as “portraits of what makes us human,” her pictures are undeniably lurid. She admits her tendency to linger on the grotesque has something to do with the fact that she is no less ambivalent about bodies than she is about the viability of rendering the figure today. “It’s odd as a figurative painter, but I’ve always found bodies strangely repellent—the skin and the texture and the pinkness and the mottling and the decay,” she says. As she puts it, in the studio her daily encounters with bodies are filled with “longing and desire but also a disgust and a fascination.” Since grappling with her contradictions seems to yield such exceptional results, one can only hope Frank doesn’t resolve them anytime soon.

This article appears in the October 2012 issue of Modern Painters.