Fresh Produce 

At Corporate & Museum Frame a painter makes a seductive, new reality with fruits and vegetables.

Richmond painter Susan Oknefski-Hamway is producing visual counterparts to such juicy lit. Her small canvases and panels, now on view at Corporate & Museum Frame, may first appear as expertly executed botanical portraits of specimens such as pomegranates, artichokes, pineapples and radishes. What they really are transcends the usual still life or scientific illustration. They seem to unlock the mysteries of the natural world in one intoxicating swoop.

Enlarging these images of fruit and vegetables to larger-than-life size, Oknefski-Hamway dramatizes the particulars of each subjects’ characteristics. Painted with crisp focus, painstaking detail and represented close to the picture frame, the objects invite the viewer to inspect with objective eyes. We observe the curiously oozy nature of a pomegranate’s seedy insides, or the multiple colors of a pear’s modeled skin, but then we notice that there is something noble, almost divine, about this specimen, and that’s when these paintings turn magical.

Just like a good historical novel, Oknefski-Hamway builds her portraits with fact and fiction. For content she marries natural history with a mythology of her own creation. For form, she borrows from the old masters. Setting each scene against Arcadian landscapes with impossibly distant and moody horizons, and bathing her objects in dramatic light, she makes common fruits and vegetables worthy of lofty, poetic musings. After taking in these images, one can’t help but wonder if the pomegranate hasn’t been underrated or misunderstood.

By completely stripping her images of any contemporary references and by mastering the visual language of classical landscapes, Oknefski-Hamway stands ready to create a convincing other world. She typically couples her still-life objects with insects, suggesting that there is a scientific connection between the two. She also adds subtle references to geographical and meteorological conditions. In “Egyptian Pineapple,” palm trees and a camel sway in a distant background. In “Firefly’s Lit,” a full moon shines over a faraway ocean. If a viewer invests the time to study these details, he or she can be launched on an exotic mental journey that lasts a long time.

Though the allusion to scientific investigation is fabricated in this body of work, the ability of even a lowly peach to illustrate the wonders of nature is not. Ofnekski-Hamway never lies about the miraculous qualities of what she paints. She seems well aware of the visual riches and the depth of mystery found in the natural world, and for this, she is entitled to her fantasies.

Ofnekski-Hamway will have you thinking that she knows all the secrets of these organic objects — that she has the lowdown on their origins, their evolution, and their place in various cultures. The truth is, all she really knows is how to paint like mad and how, as she puts it, “to create a moment in time that could be, but isn’t.” What a seductive approach to flora and fauna. S

Paintings by Susan Oknefski-Hamway are on display at Corporate & Museum Frame, 301 W. Broad St., through Sept. 2.


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