Sunday, September 21, 2014
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The imaginary world of artist Margo Selski
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Seated Fauna, 2004, oil and beeswax on canvas, by Margo Selski. (Image courtesy of the MIA)
A Minnesota artist is gaining attention for paintings which harken back to a place and time that never existed.

Minneapolis, Minn. — It's a weekday morning in the Minnesota Artists Gallery, on the first floor of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Ann Grubbs drifts out and in several times, drawn back to a series of richly detailed paintings.

"The twins are like the animus and the anima, or the dark side and the light side. And the skirt with all the animals and the snakes on it. I just... I'm almost agitated!" Grubbs laughs.

She's looking at Margo Selski's paintings. They depict sirens, angels, babies and sea creatures, as well as a pair of twins named Flora and Fauna. Flora is surrounded by flowers, while Fauna has paws instead of hands and feet.

The paintings evoke the style of the Flemish renaissance but are also suffused with magical realism. They are purposely aged to create fine cracks on the surface.

Selski says she wants to lure people to the paintings with playful images and a balanced composition. Then as they continue to stare, they begin to comprehend and explore the uneasy nature of this world. Selski is the mother of three children, two of whom were colicky babies.

"After having children, I wanted to deal with finding some kind of stability in a threatening world," says Selski. "Having children accentuated that, and having these small screaming sirens accentuated that need for balance."

Born in Minnesota, Selski was raised in Kentucky. One moment she jokingly refers to herself as a hillbilly, the next she says she was inspired by Shakespeare's "The Tempest" and Prospero's book of mirrors.

She only started painting in college. A stay-at-home mom, Selski cares for her three young children in a studio loft filled with toys, pets and a climbing wall. While the kids play, she hangs laundry on a pulley system she created. Then she takes out her brushes and canvass, and gets busy painting finely detailed mythological pictures.

MIA curator Cynde Randal first noticed Selski's work at the Minnesota State Fair. Randal says she's amazed by her focus. She says Selski's paintings create a timeless theatrical space where things aren't always what they seem.

"And life is really that way. It's much more poetic than we like to give it credit for," says Randal. "But I think that Margo really sees the poetry in her daily life, and the relationships that she invests in as a mother and through these characters that appear in her show."

Selski's ability to multi-task and problem solve carries over from her personal life into her work. The familiar children's book characters Chicken Little and Henny Penny appear regularly in the paintings. But instead of declaring the end of the world, they've learned to fly, by using a pulley system similar to the one in Selski's apartment.

Selski is dyslexic; she often uses Greek writing in her paintings to convey a sense of narrative. Sometimes it's actual Greek, while other times they are words that only she can understand.

In many of Selski's paintings, ghostly images of characters seem to hang in the air. Selski says she's recreating a phenomenon called "pentimento." Old masters would sometimes change their minds halfway through a canvas, and paint out a character. But over time, the image would reappear.

"And when I saw that I thought, 'Oh my God, that's like a hidden agenda,'" says Selski. "I know this kind of feeling where there's something seeping below the surface."

Selski says she uses images not to tell a story, but to evoke a sense of place and mystery. In one image, two sisters look out. One's hair is neatly pinned, the other's braids fly in the air. But the neat one holds the tips of her sister's braids in her fingers.

Selski says this is how she approaches her life, and her art; with a desire to be both wild and in control.

"Like Eve biting the apple, seeing over the hill, or seeing the other side," says Selski. "In my imagination this is what I desire the most; to go beyond, but also to have a part of myself control that."

Margo Selski's imagination is on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and at the Bloomington Art Center.

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