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Deep coloration

Skidmore artist Paul Sattler paints perfectly recognizable things, like earphones, armchairs, end tables, and the families living among them. Then he shatters that quotidian coziness with elements of the unthinkable, the astonishing, the fantastic, the unbearable—to which the people in his paintings seem blithely oblivious. Of course, that’s how dream and memory—the mother lode of his images—usually work.

Sattler’s studio sits out behind the tall old house he shares with his artist wife and their two daughters. On a sticky July afternoon the air is pregnant with a coming storm and there are fairies flitting across the darkening lawn—a strange, exquisite scene. OK, the fairies turn out to be a young daughter and her friend wearing spangly pink wings, but that first impression makes a perfect metaphor for Sattler’s paintings: the otherworldly and the everyday embedded together in a beauty as sharp as ozone.

The heat builds as Sattler readies artworks for his solo exhibition Above, Beyond, and In Between at Manhattan’s Gerald Peters Gallery. They range from tiny five-inch watercolors to outsized oil paintings, each imbued with a sense of story and armed with an unnerving twist. In Lullaby, for instance, a toddler reposes near the family dog, her pretty curls only inches from a jagged, horrifying black hole in the living-room floor. A vine rampaging up from that hole contains the leaf-green profile of a lovely woman, crooning to the baby. If this blend of the baroque and the surreal does funny things to your head, well and good; Sattler likes to use beauty “as a catalyst for visual power”—and to convey an aching tenderness for all that we love and lose. His studio abounds with examples: a portrait of the artist surrounded by ghosts; a dramatic sketch of a sheared-off treetop sitting bolt upright near its own trunk; Fish Out of Water, in which three men labor around a heroic fish, as big as a kayak, beached and gasping in a flooded basement near a glowing furnace.

Where does he get this stuff? From memory, he says, with its “mysterious dark places stowed away but still possessing potent dynamic particular energy.” To access that while juggling his teaching schedule and family life, Sattler typically paints from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., tapping into a deep, night-born “state of lucidity, liquid intensity, and inventiveness.” Working furiously, without preliminary plans or sketches, he first lays down raw color in bold primary shapes, then overpaints, plunges ahead, agonizes, pares back. “Nothing is sure until three-quarters of the way through,” he says, except that “the original colors and shapes are the raw emotions. Everything else is frosting.” When the summer storm finally strikes and the studio’s electricity goes out, his works look even richer in the eerie half-light. More lush. More troubling.

A Skidmore faculty member since 1998, Sattler earned an MFA from Indiana University at Bloomington in 1994. He has shown his work in Boston, Chicago, and New York (to favorable notice from the New York Times, among others). When he moved from city to country, nature so impressed him with its “outrageous, unending growth” that, he says, “it made my paintings more chaotic, unpredictable.”

Glancing around the darkened studio, he muses, “When I was a student, I always thought that by this time in my life I would be distilling my representational paintings into abstract art. But there’s something too captivating about illusion and space, about human bodies, interiors, and landscapes.” One of the last pieces, tacked to the wall near the studio door, is a very small watercolor. Inspired by Skidmore writer Stephen Millhauser’s story “A Protest in the Sun,” it shows a deathly black-hooded figure stalking down a sunlit beach among vacationers in bathing suits. Makes you shiver. —BAM