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Painter breaks free of mentor

There is a difference, some might say, between being a painter and being an artist.

American painter Emma Dial is both. She’s an art school grad in her early 30s with a penchant for greasy street food, chocolate bars and cigarettes. She picks her toenails with a palette knife. Typically dressed in a navy turtleneck and dark men’s trousers, she has prematurely silver hair, the color drained like a blank canvas. Emma is fiercely talented, “the next one to watch” according to colleagues; but American painter Emma Dial has not painted in years. Not for herself, anyway.

Instead, Emma has spent the better part of a decade as devoted studio assistant to famous New York painter Michael Freiburg, an egotistical, womanizing virtuoso who habitually punctuates sentences by making quotation marks in the air. Emma preps his canvases, mixes his paint, applies her signature intricate brushwork to his signature large-scale canvases. It’s a thankless existence in which Emma spends 18-hour stretches alone in Michael’s studio, following instructions he’s scribbled on Post-its, nestled atop rickety scaffolding while perfecting his work. She is caged, physically and creatively.

“Perched four feet in the air, a row of warm incandescent lights over my head and the remains of a cheese sandwich at my knees, I felt like a pet bird,” Emma tells us. Atelier culture is very much alive in Samantha Peale’s contemporary New York art world. (It’s fertile ground, and Peale goes at it with more than a few satirical jabs in her novel “The American Painter Emma Dial.”) However Emma’s job isn’t without its charms: At the epicenter of a power circle of artists, she has access, credibility and a healthy dose of glamour. Instant career gratification.

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But Emma’s life is also predictably vapid, laced with self-loathing and doubt. She hasn’t visited her studio in months and purposefully squelches her creative urges so that there’s time to realize Michael’s. Their relationship is without boundaries in every way. Emma does a perfect imitation of her boss and expertly forges his signature; they have sex regularly because, as Michael explains, it connects them and she’s better able to realize his vision. It’s ultimate enmeshing: The day job, originally meant to fuel Emma’s art, usurps it. Her strategic means to an end becomes the destination.

Emma’s working her way through the list of paintings to be completed for Michael’s spring show provides a convenient, thread-like structure to the novel. From “Spring Field with Police” to “Sea-shadow” to “Interstices (Rusted),” Emma’s precision and skill sharpen the more she works; but her resentment builds to a crescendo. Peale is adept at capturing the particular grade of angst an artist goes through, simultaneously fearful of breaking new ground and withering without creative expression. “Honestly, I felt too . . . scared to paint,” Emma says. “For years other people’s pictures had composed my landscape.”

It’s not until Emma meets Philip Cleary, Michael’s oldest friend -- and rival -- and a painter Emma has idolized since her art school days, that this landscape shifts. Philip sees not just Emma’s potential to be an artist but straight into her soul. Their affair is the ultimate affront to Michael and it helps Emma break free of her mentor’s hold, but not without creating new chokeholds.

Told in the first person, “The American Painter” is refreshingly devoid of gratuitous exposition or unwieldy sentiment. Peale’s characters, instead, do the heavy lifting. They are robust and finely drawn. The author’s writing is lean and powerful, with passages that cut to Emma’s core and incrementally move the story into deeper emotional terrain.

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If the novel suffers from anything, it is perhaps too much character definition, too many details. Michael is so stacked with innuendo he’s almost a caricature. Reality may be getting in the way: Peale was a studio assistant to Jeff Koons.

Still, “The American Painter Emma Dial” is a more than impressive debut, with a complicated, vulnerable central character who’s courageously living out the universal creative struggle. These are rich, ambitious ideas that Peale takes on -- questions of art and identity, commitment versus personal sacrifice, the precarious and charged student-mentor relationship, sexism in the art world, boundary issues of all stripes; she deep-dives into all this, yet her novel never feels heady or forced. Instead, it’s a graceful personal journey, an intimate snapshot of a young woman at a seminal point in her life, on the brink of either discovering her true self or becoming unhinged.

When, at last, Emma is able to reconcile Michael and Philip’s voices, something crosses over in her. “I was beginning to remember things. Hues. My arms passing over a canvas, a wide brush in my steady hand. The pleasure of my repeated gestures, making marks on sheets of heavy white paper. My voice. Saying yes and no. My will.” American painter Emma Dial finally takes on the job of being an artist.

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deborah.vankin@latimes.com


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