Since 1983, Barbara Strasen has been developing an ongoing series of paintings that she refers to as “Empathy Portraiture.” She paints her friends and family not as they appear to the objective eye, but rather as they perceive the external world, particularly the natural environment. She juxtaposes what might be called a broad perspective (the rational mind, perhaps) with isolated vignettes that either subvert the overall picture or appear as seemingly peripheral activities or neuroses.
In “Divorce,” for example, Strasen depicts a domestic environment on a number of cut-out triangles, each devoid of human presence. These geometric shards are then superimposed on a larger scenario of lawn chairs and table, so that an idyllic memory is metamorphosed into a series of empty fragments--a visual equivalent of the psychology of a failed marriage.
Her oil paintings and watercolors employ a wide variety of sketchy, almost illustrational styles that distance the viewer from any emotional empathy. Although this lack of painterly resonance robs the work of visceral impact and textural nuance, it does serve a valid structural purpose. Instead of admiring technique, we’re forced to evaluate concept, to process the imagery as facets of our own mental state rather than as bravura manifestations of the artist’s ego.
A separate series of painted masks finds her merging human and animal traits through both simple formal contrast and more extreme mutation. The results are uneven, with Strasen either opting for obvious social satire or pulling out the stops to create original hybrids that would probably have a salivating Freud reaching for the dream manual. (James Turcotte, 3517 West 6th St., to July 5.).