Museum  August 27, 2023  Rebecca Schiffman

Ilana Savdie's Psychedelic Paintings Speak to Political Oppression

Photo: Ron Amstutz

Installation view of Ilana Savdie: Radical Contractions (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, July 14 – November 5, 2023). From left to right: Pico y placa, 2023; Tickling the Before and After, 2023. 

Immediately upon entering the exhibition, Ilana Savdie. Radical Contractions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the viewer is grabbed and seduced by the vibrant colors in Savdie’s paintings. Layers of intense hues of greens, blues, reds, and purples are created through a mix of acrylic, oil, and scaly beeswax. The resulting works are psychedelic and intricate, filled with a multitude of dichotomies: they contain shapes that are familiar yet indescribable, powerful yet delicate, prehistoric but contemporary, and luminous but also extremely dark.

Radical Contractions , which is on view in the lobby gallery through November 5, showcases new large-scale paintings and works on paper that integrate a mixture of art history, folklore, human anatomy, microbiology, horror, and pop culture to create abstract artworks that speak to the cultural and political oppression and ensuing resistance that we find ourselves grappling with today in America. 

Photo: Lance Brewer. Courtesy the Artist. © Ilana Savdie.

Ilana Savdie, Tickling the Before and After (Cosquilleo Interior), 2023. Oil, acrylic, and beeswax on canvas stretched on panel, 120 × 86 in. (304.8 × 218.44 cm). 

Savdie grew up between Barranquilla, Colombia, and Miami, Florida. Her work is inspired by her childhood in Colombia, both for its systemic inequities of gender, race, and class and also for her memories of the annual Carnaval de Barranquilla. Savdie found a deep appreciation for the carnival character of Marimonda, a masked figure that mocks the so-called elite. Marimonda reminded the artist of today’s political climate in America, where there has been attack after attack on various groups of marginalized people. As a queer woman of color, Savdie, in effect, takes on the role of Marimonda by documenting the large systems of oppression her work responds to, but by exhibiting this work, she also reclaims her own position of power.

In Savdie’s world, beautiful bodies melt into one another while inorganic forms take cover in the details. In Baths of Synovia (2023), figures and skeletons grip and pull on one another as they float in a blue abyss. At the top, a figure with pink and purple skin-like folds and small multi-colored hands or claws lurks above, perhaps taking in the spectacle or waiting to strike its prey. The work, as the wall text explains (in both English and Spanish), is inspired by an etching by Francisco de Goya, Aguarda que te unten (Wait Till You’ve Been Anointed) from 1799, of a goblin and one-eyed woman who, together, hold down a billy goat that is attempting to fly. In Goya’s version, the figures cover the animal with some sort of gel or ointment, suggesting that the goat was previously a human and has undergone a transformation. 

Photo: Lance Brewer. Courtesy the Artist. © Ilana Savdie.

Ilana Savdie, Baths of Synovia, 2023.

Just like in Baths of Synovia, many other works on view play with static and active movement through the mediums used. In Perpetual Revenant (2023), for example, the background is composed of a flowing stream of colors: deep reds and burnt oranges that bubble up the canvas to tentacle-like figures at the top made of purples, pinks, and blues. But splashed across the majority of the work is a muted purple that takes on a bubbled or congealed form. Though static in its uniformity, the purple juxtaposes the rest of the composition with its inherent flatness and even further, contradicts itself with its bubbled texture. 

In all of the other works on view, Savdie engages with these flat planes of rich color that butt heads, intersect, or meld together. Though her work addresses large systems of oppression, the interactions between colors in her work remind us of how humans, too, are capable of finding solutions to peacefully coexist. 

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