Sometimes painting is like music, full of grace notes and melody. Other paintings have the scope and depth of great literature.
But according to painter Elizabeth Fox, her work shares an affinity with television.
“I have the TV on all the time while I’m painting,” she said. “So it’s not surprising that it would influence my work.”
Indeed, many of the scenes on view in “Played to Win,” Fox’s show of mostly new work on view at the Boyd | Satellite Gallery in New Orleans, look like they could have been painted from memories of soap operas, crime dramas and game shows.
Diminutive in size — the largest painting in the show measures barely 2 feet long, and most are considerably smaller — each painting is populated with Fox’s characteristically attenuated figures doing some very mysterious things.
In “Drag Queens in the Rain,” a group of female figures (you wouldn’t peg them as drag queens if the title didn’t tell you so) amass in a crowd outside of a building, while inside a lone male figure (or perhaps it’s a drag king?) appears to be serving a drink to someone, or maybe cleaning up after a night’s festivities.
So what exactly is going on here?
“It’s actually based on scenes I remember from passing the Bourbon Pub so many times when I lived here,” said Fox, who lived in New Orleans for 18 years before moving to Maine in 2008.
Of course, not all viewers will have the artist on hand explaining what’s going on in each painting. But the title of the show itself provides a thematic glue that binds the images together. “Played to Win” (a phrase Fox borrowed from dialogue by Kevin Spacey’s ruthless congressman in “House of Cards”) refers to the fine line that often separates success from failure, Fox said.
“We all have our goals, but sometimes we are up and sometimes we are down,” she said. “The point is, we’re in the game.”
Fittingly, the workplace environment provides the playing field for that game in several of Fox’s paintings.
In one scene, two secretaries line themselves up for action like figures on a gridiron as three executives in suits appear in an open elevator; in another, a male-and-female pair of office workers push against each other on opposite sides of a revolving door.
And the “dark side” of the TV character who inspired the show’s title informs the content of Fox’s paintings too: “The images are very playful, but there’s a smoky criminal element that creeps in.”
Fox’s observation makes even the most seemingly innocuous and lighthearted of her images take on a more sinister cast. The ominously black-suited watchmen on the deck of a barge in one painting almost certainly aren’t looking out for the well-being of their passengers. And it’s doubtful that the three figures in “Search Party” are looking for a lost puppy in the woods — more like a body they forgot to bury.
Despite the darkness, there’s still plenty of the unsettling frivolity that Fox is known for. The determined-looking contestants in “Pie Fest” might look like they’re being forced to participate in a “Hollywood Squares”-type game show— but anyplace where pie is on the menu can’t be that bad, right?
Fox points to another playful image, “Businessmen in the Snow,” as one of her favorites.
“I didn’t really know what a snow bank looked like until I moved to Maine, and was really fascinated by them,” she said. “I knew one would make it into my work sooner or later.”
But there’s a darker side to those snowy shenanigans: look closely, and you’ll see a gun buried in the ground. “It’s the first one I’ve painted,” she said. “I don’t know why it’s there, but it somehow adds to the potential of the scene.”
“Someone once referred to the scenes in my work as ‘unfulfilled’,” she continued, “and that’s a good way of describing them. Sometimes the relationships in the paintings are more obvious than others. But I always want people to look at them and wonder what’s going on.”