Walking into a stunning, late 19th-century townhouse on the Upper East Side, the last thing you might expect to find are paintings of glamorous, yet grotesque, figures whose unctuous skin seems to slowly swirl. Then again, you might not have been to Polina Berlin Gallery. Formerly of Paula Cooper and Paul Kasmin, Berlin opened her own space in February of 2022 and has since become known for her eye for emerging talent, in particular young, female artists. In her latest show, she presents Strangers by the Side of the Road, Lithuanian-born, London-based artist Vilte Fuller’s first US solo show.
Creepy, glowy, and unsettling, Fuller’s paintings are packed with abstract figures whose faces seem to melt, as if in the process of transformation. Stemming from her interest in the American horror films she watched as a child, Fuller has long been drawn to nightmarish figures and monsters.
“Growing up in Lithuania, we didn’t have much of our own programming, but we did have a lot of imported media from a variety of countries,” she says. “I particularly enjoyed the format of classic American horror movies. I loved the unassuming suspects, the clichéd blonde being the first to be subjected to some awful incident. There was no real moral of the stories and everyone experiencing these horrific events still looked beautiful, with lip gloss in place and perfect clothes.”
From this introduction to camp, gore, and horror, Fuller began creating her own imaginative stories, which eventually translated onto the canvas. “I enjoy that some of my paintings aren’t the most comfortable to sit with. I like to create works that are snapshots into my own horror movies. To me, if the painting is ‘too pretty,’ it’s not finished.”
Fuller’s paintings are far from pretty, but they maintain an element of glamor. Her figures often appear to be wearing makeup and look out at the viewer with expressions that are at times sensual. Yet the overall compositions are gritty, dystopian, and alien.
This juxtaposition of grit and glamor comes through in Good, good, she’s rewarding her dog verbally, a work depicting a green woman with red, slightly parted lips, a narrow nose, and dark eyes set in deep, defined eyelids. The surface of her lips has a sheen like stainless steel. Under her eyes are patches of deeper green, perhaps natural coloration akin to bags, or perhaps made with an embellishment of makeup. On top of her head is a dog with endless skin rolls.
Though a glowing, red sky, possibly a sun setting over reflective water, appears in the background, the color green dominates the work. Green often appears in Fuller’s paintings, a proclivity that stems from a variety of sources. “I was told by friends who used to work at auction houses that green paintings were likely to sell at lower values than reds or blues, for example,” she says. “Whether this information was based on fact or not, I found it to be an amusing concept.”
In addition to imbuing humor and irony, Fuller’s use of green relates to a visit she made to the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights (the so-called KGB Museum) in Vilnius. “It was an old prison and interrogation office with interiors that included chromium oxide green painted walls. It was such a bizarre design choice, akin to moss on concrete,” she explains.
“As much as it is associated with nature,” Fuller adds, “green also appears in the most ‘unnatural’ environments. The representation of nuclear waste in sci-fi storytelling, like cinema and comic books, has the color green as one that is glowing. Think of the classic, little green aliens.”
Indeed, Fuller’s application of paint appears irradiated. The glowing woman and her dog seen in Good, good, she’s rewarding her dog verbally, are shown again in Hug me please. In both works, the skin of the figure and her dog appear to be soft, as a hand could push through the melting surface. Even the position of the subjects with the dog protruding from the top of her head makes them appear to be fusing together. Or perhaps they are at the moment of detachment and the canine creature is slowly pulling away from its owner.
A nod to Frankenstein, Fuller embraces the randomness of materials, leaving visible existing elements like zippers and the seams of canvases she stitches together. In Shell, she has incorporated the metal zipper that moves across the surface, allowing it to bisect the top half of her monster’s face. The canvas appears slightly mossy, resembling the green of the concrete surfaces she was so struck by at the museum in Vilnius. Like a double-exposed image, a face with two red-lipped mouths appears. Its bloodshot, green eyes peer off to the corner.
Shell is one of two works in the show made on a very small scale–8 by 12 inches compared to the others that are upwards of 65 by 50. Petit in size, they pack a psychological punch. Fuller typically avoids providing the viewer with much, if any, context, and these small paintings are particularly ambiguous. Perfect embodiments of the snapshots of a horror film that she sets out to create, these zoomed-in faces appear as if they’re stuck in a brick in the wall.
This unsettling uncertainty of Fuller’s work is what makes it so intriguing. Is the dog melting into its owner’s head? Why does each figure’s skin appear to glow? Will the face in Shell remain frozen in perpetuity? Ultimately, Fuller leaves the viewer to decide and to fill in the creepy details of a horror narrative of their own.
Vilte Fuller: Strangers by the Side of the Road is on view through October 29 at Polina Berlin Gallery, 165 East 64th Street.
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Annabel Keenan is a New York-based writer focusing on contemporary art, market reporting, and sustainability. Her writing has been published in The Art Newspaper, Hyperallergic, and Artillery Magazine among others. She holds a B.A. in Art History and Italian from Emory University and an M.A. in Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture from the Bard Graduate Center.