Last summer a friendof mine sold all her dolls (and nearly everything else she owned) at a garage sale. A handful of others pitched in, throwing their discarded velour tops, thrift-store ceramics, and love notes from their art school days onto the lawn. My excitement over the score I'd just made at the sale one block over (vampire-themed lesbian porn, still in the wrapper, for a dollar) was quickly supplanted when I spotted an offering of oil paintings on canvas leaning up against the outside of the house.
The artist, Georgia Mravkova, sat smoking an American Spirit cigarette on a nearby stoop. Wearing broken-in jeans and a trendy top, she looked like any number of south Minneapolis residents over thirty. Her shoulder-length, chestnut hair looked as wispy in the wind as the smoke from her cigarette. She was watching passersby, and not guarding her paintings too closely, which gave me a chance to check out her work somewhat unobserved. These were not leftovers from someone's high school art program. They were the work of an accomplished artist.
While I recall hearing that Mravkova painted every day, and have seen her at openings, parties, and galleries over the years, I don't remember spotting her art hanging in any of them. But as I looked over the small selections of what I knew to be a larger body of work, I shook my head, thinking that it was criminal that she wasn't showing all over town. I suddenly wished you could bet on a painter the way you could, say, Seabiscuit. Or maybe you could, and this was my chance to get in on the ground floor.
Mravkova had five or six paintings on display that day. The canvases varied in size from 12 x 16 to 22 x 28 and were either entirely abstract or clearly figurative. I was particularly compelled by her figurative work, which is stark and dramatic, with the characters portrayed straight on, exposed for inspection, warts and all. In lieu of classic beauty, there was something endearingly freaky about all of them, perhaps some oddly sharp facial features, or the presence and proximity of an animal betraying an obsessive relationship with a pet. And seeing them captured on canvas was a treat, because they were exactly the kinds of flaws that these people might try to hide from sight if I were to meet them socially. These portraits removed the tea party inhibition, and gave us a chance to look at them as they might be if they were comfortable showing their real selves.
Mravkova's technical style furthers this theme of ingratiating imperfection. Her canvases are clearly well-painted in the academic sense. Her proportion, shading, and attention to detail are spot on. Yet she is willing to abandon it for a crucial stroke or two to underscore or elevate a particularly ironic aspect of the subject. For example, the laugh lines on the portrait of a young girl seem to change just slightly based on the mood or position of the viewer. At first glance the smile might appear symmetrical and perfectly formed, but a second glance, perhaps a longer look from the left, might leave one wondering if her lips aren't just the slightest bit wrenched, as if she is enduring some internally awkward moment. Similarly, the colors chosen, while vibrant and eye-catching, purposefully seem just a bit off. Rather than pink for the blouse on a woman holding her prize show dogs, for example, Mravkova chooses a hue somewhere between off-rose and a sort of funky salmon.
Within this collection of misfits I found the first painting I ever liked enough to buy.
Well, actually I traded the artist my old digital camera for the piece, a 24 x 18 canvas painting titled Bobbie and Flame. Bobbie, a preteen redhead, has perfectly shaped auburn brows and beautifully spaced eyes, a noble nose that harks back to a Grecian style, and a mouth anchored by an almost bloated bottom lip, balanced off by a top lip that's wafer-thin at the corners and plump in the middle. She wears a blue satin windbreaker with knit cuffs, an adornment most commonly associated with middle-American roller rinks circa 1976. She is holding her prize chicken, Flame, in her arms, the quirky duo captured mid-embrace.
Bobbie's expression is a glorious mélange of affection, bliss, and contentment, while Flame, though a fine-looking chicken, betrays no reaction toward his benefactor. The big cluck simply stares blankly at a space somewhere off the edge of the canvas, presumably at nothing in particular, leaving one with the impression that while beloved, he is likely as dumb as a box of hair.
The features of the girl are fresh and clear. She wears no makeup. Her hair is simply brushed and parted in the middle, with no ceremonious style--not even a cowlick or an unruly wave--to enliven it. The small parting of her lips reveals a pair of slightly misshapen front teeth thrown into greater relief by an otherwise barely perceptible overbite. The effect is not deforming but notable, the kind of thing a mother would think is darling, but that a grade school classmate might find taunt-worthy. With subtle shifts in composition, Mravkova left me with the impression that this girl is, perhaps, a bit of an outcast, in the garden-variety preteen way, and that her relationship with her pet rooster is a safe haven from a world in which she feels just a little out of place. And it's probably not surprising that an accomplished painter selling off her old work at a friend's yard sale is keenly attuned to this outsider element.