The feel of water

(First published in the May 17, 2018 issue of City Pages)

Samantha French’s charismatic paintings are the latest exhibit at the Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art



Besides the eye-popping colors and sheer size of some pieces, something else strikes you about Samantha French’s work: the subject’s eyes are closed in nearly all her paintings.

That’s likely because the person is feeling the unique joy of a summer swim, says David Hummer, founder of Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art, which is featuring an exhibit of French’s work. Each painting casts the human subject (mostly females) in the lighting effect of being underwater—either just submerged, half submerged or about to emerge from the water. The look on every face expresses ecstasy, contentment and happiness.

Why underwater? The setting represents a challenge and unique opportunity for a painter, Hummer says. There are plenty of other examples in the art world. Artist Alyssa Monks, who judged the first exhibition at WMOCA, for example, is working with reflected and opaque surfaces. In both cases, the setting alters the color of light, further complicated by how that light interacts with surfaces, such as skin or hair or goggles.

It doesn’t take an art expert to see how French nails that underwater setting. French is on the fringe of hyper-realism, Hummer says, in that her realistic paintings are somehow larger than life (and some literally so). One painting, for example, features a palette of brilliant blues contrasted with the grayish muting effect on the skin of a woman just below the surface, as a bubble escapes her lips. That bubble is a set of reflected surfaces itself.

Now based in New York, French didn’t exactly grow up in swimming pool country. She was born in Minnesota, and her paintings are meant to evoke memories of swimming in its many lakes. “I attempt to recreate the quiet tranquility of water and nature; of days spent sinking and floating, still and peaceful,” French says on her website. Her paintings are a link to childhood and an escape from the hum-dum of every day life.

It’s a transfixing combination of energetic joy and tranquility. The subjects’ eyes aren’t shut out of fear, but in ecstasy. The viewer can’t help but feel it, too.