When you walk into Ratio 3, one of the first artworks you encounter doesn’t initially seem like it’s part of the exhibition. Olive Girl (2021) is a tiny assemblage of beads and rubber on a painted piece of metal that looks like a salvaged bit of packaging material. Here the artist shows an abstracted pink figure against a blue green backdrop with oblong, olive-ish shapes hovering in the air around her. Layers of underpainting mottle the surface, as do the rubber and painted-over beads that Sheff works into its surface. Although humble in scale, this artwork embodies a lot of what makes Daisy May Sheff’s first solo exhibition in this space a knockout: a confidence in expression and fluid play with color; a careful attention to her materials and substrates in particular; and a romantic approach to narrative and figure in each composition.
Sheff said in interviews that she works on many paintings at once, going back and forth between each canvas as colors and images inspire her.1 In the artworks themselves, this manifests as a gaudy trend towards pinks, oranges, and violets in her palette, and repeated motifs that appear across compositions—like Easter eggs for the viewer to seek out. In one of Ratio 3’s rooms, the 8 x 10-inch painting Cake Fish Treasure Chest (2021) shows the form of a fish with a gilded and bejeweled treasure chest painted right on top of it. Sheff’s fantastical, hybrid creature occupies the entire space of the small canvas, swimming across a sea of bismuth pink. Later on in the exhibition, in What a Dazzling Pair of Hoofs, Old Man! (2021), that same little fish amalgam swims through the foreground in the bottom right of the image. Similarly, throughout the exhibition, we see repeated instances of dresses with puffed, billowing sleeves, riffs on witchy, Victorian-era buckled boots, and female figures with swooping locks of hair. Sheff has a distinct visual lexicon that she employs to make each image that helps draw the viewer into a given painting’s narrative.
Commanding the back room, Bath Bed Stack (2021) is the largest painting in the exhibition, a showcase for how all Sheff’s visual strategies come together to deliver a narrative. Here the 72 x 72-inch canvas is divided roughly in half. Sheff’s composition, as in several of the other large paintings in the exhibition, is a series of blocky abutting picture planes that echoes Diebenkorn, and a strange, flattened depth of space akin to Matisse’s interiors. The top half shows a figure lying awake in bed, tucked in and trying to sleep. In a line vertically from the top of her head are several yellow and blue painted question marks. Below her, in the bottom half of the canvas is another figure who looks to be reclining in a bath. Sheff has painted her head from several different angles, like she’s shaking her it in confusion or dismay. There’s a clear feeling of restlessness here from both characters: one trying to find sleep but with a questioning, anxious mind, and the other also struggling for peace in a soothing bath. Sheff built up the canvas with layers of blue and green in the underpainting, that, when seen through the rosier colors on top, contributes to a feeling of unease in the image’s figures.
Made mostly over the last two years, there are more than thirty paintings in the exhibition and Sheff uses a variety of substrates throughout: linen, wood, burlap, metal screens, and canvas. To these substrates the artist applies different media liberally, from oil paint to clay and ceramic shards, paper, beads, velvet, sequins, glitter, and yarn. For example, a grouping in the third room of the exhibition offers a panoply of surfaces. In Swirly Sleeves (2021), the artist stretches mesh metal over a wood frame, with pasted burlap over the top and bottom third, leaving some of the metal exposed in two squarish patches near the center. Below and to the left, Ingredients (Come In, Come In) (2021), is a lilac field of color peppered with abstract shapes, its textured surface built up with epoxy and ceramic on the burlap canvas. The other paintings in the group are variously oil on linen or oil on canvas, and Sheff likewise manipulates paint and other media on each to play up these different surfaces. Together they result in a feeling of insatiability but also exuberance that permeates the exhibition—like the artist is compulsively, and yet meticulously, filling the space of both the canvas and the walls of the gallery.
1. Rynaski, Nate, “Grimm Gallery: When We Said Break A Leg, We Meant It,” Flaunt (August 16, 2021).
Daisy May Sheff: Hid It Well in a Walnut Shell
Ratio 3 Gallery, San Francisco, CA
January 18–March 12, 2022
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