Anya Janssen has an unusual muse—Ivy, a girl who lives with her mother in a red mobile home in rural Holland. In this isolation, Ivy's imagination runs at full gallop. A nearby forest is full of monsters. Water droplets contain universes. Bugs and mushrooms take on monumental significance.
Ivy was selling admission tickets for an open-air theater run by her mother when Janssen, a Dutch artist living in the woods outside Arnhem, met her. Janssen began rendering the 12-year-old girl's world in meticulous oil paintings, borrowing heavily from photography. In But whatever it was, it came out of the trees 7 (2010), Janssen describes insects in the foreground in microscopic detail, while the prone Ivy, taking up the rest of the painting and wholly out of focus, gazes sadly away. Janssen appropriates a grainy press photo of the notorious mouse made to grow a human ear out of its back in We are stardust (mouse), 2009, rendering it in saturated colors and with pixelation smoothed. Every white blossom of Weep tree (2012) is unstintingly included, every fiber of dandelion in We are stardust (flower), 2009. Technically, this is impressive.
Artistically, it's problematic. The exhibition, titled "The Shapeshifter," was full of the snapshot's careless cropping and the flash's blown-out highlights. Given the girl's imagination, Janssen's hyperbolic attention to detail, selectively applied, makes sense. The lens flares do not. I can believe that Ivy saw the earmouse on TV and that it became part of her mythology, or that her awkward positioning in Break the Spell 4 (2011), in which her chin rests on the bottom edge of the canvas, has to do with her personality, carefree and ingenuous. (The bunny ears she is wearing seem to confirm this.) But the paintings' self-conscious dialogue with photography is taking place in the art world—Janssen's world, not Ivy's. That is where the spell breaks.
A video Janssen produced, on view in the show, montages clips of subjects that appear in the paintings: floating bubbles, grass waving under the moonlight, sun blazing on dandelions. Reticent music by composer Anthony Fiumara, accompanying a poem by Marjolijn van Heemstra, played in the gallery. Each made a valid and beautiful contribution. But this was ultimately a painting show, with 47 canvases installed so as to snake up and down the wall as well as across it. Ivy's story was not in the forefront here. Rather, the point was Janssen's struggle to do something contemporary, worldly and ambitious with realistic painting, in the country that gave us the life-size group portrait 400 years ago.
Imperfectly, she succeeds. Even if, at times, Ivy gets upstaged by the showmanship—by Janssen's technical prowess and the totality of the presentation—the girl is, in places, movingly manifested in over-the-top colors, loving detail and an air of preadolescent magic that Janssen has captured with keen sympathy.