Through April 20th, Stockholm-based painter Sixten Sandra Österberg debuts her exhibition titled Familiar Openings at Company Gallery, New York City. Inspired by classic portraiture and the Dutch Golden Age of painting, Österberg’s works display that same technical precision and remarkable eye for detail celebrated in the oeuvre of Johannes Vermeer and Peiter de Hooch. Yet as much as she displays the formal traditions of this craft, she just as skillfully subverts them.
Subverting the early 17th century portraiture tastes of wealthy collectors, Österberg’s portraits queer the classical genres of art historicism. In Wanderers above a sea of fog (2024), she paints a replica of the canonical Romantic piece, Wanderer above the sea of fog (1818) by Caspar David Friedrich. In Österberg’s vision, however, Friedrich’s lonesome wanderer is replaced by two black figures wearing maximally patterned skirts that trail by their combat booted and barefooted feet. They retain the same contemplative force as Friedrich’s wanderer, but perhaps with some more power. As the background seems almost to slide off the canvas, the eye comes to focus on the couple who stand in a kind of defiance.
It is a defiance, of course, against the cis-white-heteronormative and largely male dominated classical history of painting. Situating this tradition within her own contemporary work Österberg’s paintings emerge with a multiplicity of dualisms which render them faintly elusive. As they contrast the traditional and the contemporary, they similarly contrast realism and abstraction; high art and kitsch; and visceral yet entirely fleeting sensations. With the capacity for so many contrasting interpretations, every new observation of each painting becomes an entirely singular experience.
This challenges nominal tendencies of artistic perception by preventing the construction of any one overwhelming meaning. The subjects, normally painted from behind if not looking into a faraway distance or each other’s eyes, preserve an intimacy that cannot be broached by the observer. Through the paintings, ‘kisses are eternal and time is frozen’ on the canvas, and so the viewer is forced to adopt a voyeuristic gaze. While we remain at a distance from this oil painted idle, to gaze upon it allows us to enter into our own escapist idles through fantasy.
That fantasy is most visceral in the tapestries that background a few of the paintings, depicting intricate fairy tale forests, complete with unicorns and dears. They are reminiscent of the kitschy decor you might find on the wall of a university student’s dorm, but that familiarity seems intentional. They depict yet another contrast between fantasy and familiarity, queering reality without isolating the painted subjects in some unfamiliar non-reality. In fact, the pulsating heart of this collection is its depiction of familiarity. By depicting scenes of community, friendship, lust, and love, the collection retains a sentimental humanism. For all its abstractions and fantasy, these human experiences, the most familiar of all, enact a viscerally unify force between the collection and its audience.
Familiar Openings is Österberg’s first solo exhibitionat Company Gallery. Other solo exhibitions include those at Andréhn-Schiptjenko, Stockholm, Konstnärshuset, Stockholm and CFHILL, Stockholm, as well as group exhibitions at Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen; Improper Walls, Vienna; and Accelerator, Stockholm. Sixten Sandra Österberg (b. 1990) lives and works in Stockholm, Sweden.
Picnic II, 2024
Lovely You, 2024
Chosen few, 2024
Sleepers, 2024