If Sam Bornstein’s dreamy and soft-spoken paintings have a subject, it’s the mystery of proximate unknowability in a city like New York. “Variety Lofts,” which inaugurates Charles Moffett’s new space in Tribeca, nods to the city’s architecture and artistic history. The title, inspired by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, evokes a sense of life in close vicinity: a student’s loft above a working artist’s studio above a late-night pizza shop, all while a window-cleaner hangs outside. “The show is a distorted autobiography,” Bornstein told me. “Fantasy, reverie and memory.” One work, The Poet and the Architect (2022), depicts the figures of two professions leaning over each other in both psychological and physical space, working on their respective crafts.
Bornstein’s second solo show with the gallery marks a departure for the artist. Though he started out as a “pretty traditional painter,” he said, Bornstein eventually began painting on everything from concrete to plaster to wood. His work here is exclusively on canvas and linen surfaced with gesso. “I’m always shifting surfaces to fit the tenor or the mood,” he said. Their palettes are matutinal, as if eked out from dawn until noon. Belling the Swan (2022) depicts a trio of figures—one of them, on all fours in a posture mirroring the wingspread swan in the background, seems to wear a garment fashioned out of daybreak itself. Airbrush lends a softness that can’t be reproduced with acrylics or oils.
Bornstein himself was raised in a kind of variety loft. His parents found an ad for the mixed-use building—home to the original Barnes & Noble bookstore—in the newspaper. The neighborhood, known as Vaudeville, made an impression on the artist. Bornstein learned to paint from a neighbor and sullenly visited the city’s museums with his parents, a musician and a fashion designer. After college, he spent a year helping his mother stitch garments, and cloth and clothing feature prominently in his current work.
Windows also recur throughout these paintings—fittingly, for a series created during the pandemic. “I've spent more time in my head than I can remember,” Bornstein said. “The work became soft and serene because of how harsh life has been.” Still, his paintings don’t bemoan sadness—they dream expansively from within cloistered spaces. In Pandora’s Player Piano (2022), figures literally take flight beside floor-to-ceiling bay windows in ecstasy over the piano player’s tune, while sunlight roars in applause outside. —Lisa Yin Zhang
Sam Bornstein, Carpenters’ Loft, 2021–2022. Acrylic, acrylic ink, airbrush, tinted gesso and oil on linen, 24 x 20 inches. Image courtesy the artist and Charles Moffett