By Emily J Weitz
Margo Selski’s work has hung in the front window of the Richard Demato Gallery many times over the years: Disarming young girls painted in formal, Victorian style hold some surprising element, like a pig in arms. But for the first time, the gallery will devote an entire floor to her work in her solo show, “Down the Rabbit Hole.”
In her work, Selski strives to find a sense of balance between two opposites in many senses. For example, she paints in a classical style that is representational and realistic. Viewing her work, it’s almost as if you’re looking at paintings from long ago, and yet the subject matter is rooted in the present tense.
“My work is intensely autobiographical and based in the here and now,” says Selski. “I am simply viewing the 21st century society and my own personal existence through a mirror, at a distance.”
She utilizes this technique of viewing things at a distance for self-preservation, among other things.
“I wish to mask family secrets and personal confessions,” she says, “as well as allow the viewer to read their own personal interpretation into the work. In other words, to view their own lives through a mirror at a distance.”
As a mother, she has been able to monitor the human condition from a different perspective, as an observer. She has taken her observations of her three children and interwoven them into her work.
“At times my paintings record the act of observing my own three children’s individual spirits emerge as they search for an extension of childhood and adolescence,” she says.
For example, in the piece “Defined By Hair,” she paints her son dealing with adolescence, androgyny, and societal norms.
“I grapple with the idea that throughout Western art history powerful men had long hair,” she says. “And that strict gender categories in our own time is a historical anomaly. Thus, Theo balances on a tightrope in that pivotal point between being a child and a young man.”
Other opposites she attempts to unite through her paintings include old and new.
“I use encaustic technique to create an aged, cracked appearance on the surface of the painting,” she says. “While the work seems old, it is in fact recently painted.”
She also plays with the ideas of the familiar and the unfamiliar. In each painting, there’s some kind of image the viewer can latch onto and understand. She comes back again and again to a girl with a large white rabbit, which can practically universally be understood as Alice in Wonderland. But then she throws in something totally obscure.
“A gown covered in eyes,” she says, “leather gloves, metal chains, and gravity-defying anvil hair.”
This technique allows the viewer to feel comfortable with the material while probing in to something deeper.
“I wish to create a sense of safety,” she says. “On the other hand, there’s a sense of danger.”
She uses the postures of her subjects, like a calm Renaissance pose or a Mona Lisa smile, to invoke this feeling of quiet and serenity, and then she throws in something dangerous, like a metal leash or leather gloves.
The Rabbit Hole is a theme that has always interested Selski.
“When I was a child,” she wrote in her artist’s statement for this show, “you could often find me lying in the small space under the merry-go-round, imagining I was falling down Alice in Wonderland’s rabbit hole.”
She was fascinated by the moment of transition that the rabbit hole came to represent. That Alice could be an ordinary girl one minute, and a heroine in Wonderland the next. She compares it to Clark Kent emerging as Superman, or a woman who wiped the sweat from Jesus’s brow becoming a saint. She sees this moment of transition as the moment a person becomes something extraordinary.
“I am obsessed with the pivotal point in which a seemingly ordinary person is transformed to extraordinary,” she says. “You might say that the rabbit hole is the portal between my need for theatricality and my seemingly ordinary everyday existence.”
When Selski was an art student, she traveled in Greece. There she encountered the term akme, which she felt captured this transformative moment.
“An akme experience is defined as an event or bridge in which someone transforms from ordinary to extraordinary,” she says. “That tense, pivotal point between two extremes has influenced my art for the past twenty years. In other words, I am still obsessed with the rabbit hole.”