Hex Signs and Butt Plugs: Pennsylvania Dutch Perversions in Anne Buckwalter’s “Reins on a Rocking Horse” at Rachel Uffner Gallery

Anne Buckwalter, Pony Tail, 2023, gouache on panel, 24 x 24 x 1 in
(Courtesy of the artist and Rachel Uffner Gallery, New York; Photo: Stan Narten: JSP Art Photography)

Bearded Amish men creating traffic jams in horse-drawn buggies. Shoofly pies, whoopie pies, and apple butter bake sales staffed by women in plain cotton dresses. Worn farmhouses adorned with painted barn stars. Wooden rockers and star-laden quilts. These are the quaint scenes that immediately come to my mind when considering the aesthetics of Pennsylvania Dutch country. Not horse tail butt plugs, flung fluid-flecked panties, and red binding ropes for some casual bondage. But, artist Anne Buckwalter’s current rewardingly filthy exhibition Reins on a Rocking Horse at Rachel Uffner Gallery has changed all that, pairing the precision of Pennsylvania Dutch folk art with sudden bursts of sleaze. Never have I wanted to visit Lancaster more.

Granted, my limited conception of the Pennsylvania Dutch region derives from exactly that—breezing in and out as a tourist without ever stopping to peer lecherously into people’s windows. Next time I will, for Buckwalter’s exhibition uncovers a fucking free-for-all going on inside these picturesque homes. For those who like to watch, Reins on a Rocking Horse tickles that peeper itch by placing viewers into the position of voyeurs. Sometimes quite literally as in Next Door Neighbors, painted from the perspective of a nebby neighbor ogling from a pair of binoculars. Similarly, Buckwalter’s series of four pencil drawings Neighbors places viewers in the hedges or against the bricks or vinyl siding, nearly fogging up the windows with their heavy breathing. There is a pay-off for peeking. In Next Door Neighbors, a headless female figure stands buck naked in front of the window, while the Neighbors drawings reveal entangled bodies, heavy make-out sessions, and, the most prudish, penetration as shown on TV. Porn also appears in an open window of a computer screen in New Window, along with the WebMD page for PMDD (Premenstrual dysphoric disorder), showcasing a different form of voyeurism for the 21st century. Who hasn’t been guilty of gawking over the shoulder of someone’s open screen? I know I have.

Anne Buckwalter, New Window, 2023, gouache on panel, 12 x 16 x 1 in
(Courtesy of the artist and Rachel Uffner Gallery, New York; Photo: Stan Narten: JSP Art Photography)

Buckwalter doesn’t force viewers to stay on the outside looking in, though. Most of the exhibition consists of her gouache-on-panel paintings, which crack open rural homes like doll houses, unveiling the sexual frolics that typically go on in private. Bare asses, garter belts, and thigh-high stockings crawl past half-ajar doors in Home Alone and Solitaire. Mirrors, in particular, exist as mediums for exposure. A circular face mirror set on a dresser in Pony Tail projects a sudden shock of a bare breast. A standing woman contemplates a reddened hand print left post-spanking in a full-length mirror in Red Right Hand, titled in an amusingly sordid take on Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ devilish classic. It’s not all solo acts. An ornate green floral rug is the setting for contactless mutual masturbation in No Touching with a man’s headless torso reclining, dick in hand, as a woman’s head pops into the bottom of the picture plane. This strange hovering overhead perspective leads to some baffling moments like in Criss-Cross. The same woman—identifiable by her messy brown braided hair—kneels while bound in rope with her hands behind her back, which we see, again, reflected from the back in a mirror. Jutting from the bottom of the painting are her two-crossed feet. Given the distance from the mirror, this doesn’t quite make sense yet is an endearingly quirky detail, as is the black underwear still stuck with a coagulated period-stained pad lying on the ground nearby.

Beyond being funny, the presence of the period panties, along with a blood-soaked tampon resting on the top of a heaping pile of trash in Empty Bathroom and the PMDD query in New Window, shatters the idealized erotic fantasies of these scenes, grounding them in the real-life shit of menstrual cycles and PMS mood swings. Their abjection also works to counteract the inherent preciousness of Buckwalter’s flattened style and nods to Pennsylvania Dutch artistic legacies. While usually the eye—ok, MY eye—gravitates toward the most debauched action in a work, Buckwalter’s exquisite rendering of interiors and fixation on busy vintage prints are as captivating as the ongoing pursuit of pleasure. With the floors raised to the viewer’s sightline, her angular rendering of hardwood in alternating colors and swirls of wood grain is, at once, mesmerizing and dizzying. Likewise, patterns clash, forming a barrage of floral wallpaper, tiles, and tacky wood paneling, bisected by stairwells with white-painted railings. Buckwalter clearly knows her American decorative arts history—much more than me though I did spot a Chippendale chest of drawers and several pieces of painted PA Dutch furniture. She nails her art history too as evidenced by renditions of Alice Neel’s “problematic” portrait of her naked daughter Isabetta and Charles Demuth’s not-so-subtly homoerotic Three Sailors Urinating. These recognizable artworks are joined by more anonymous and fetishistic black-and-white images including a fingerless gloved hand sliding over laces in The Landing.

Anne Buckwalter, The Landing, 2023, gouache on panel, 36 x 60 x 1 1/2 in
(Courtesy of the artist and Rachel Uffner Gallery, New York; Photo: Stan Narten: JSP Art Photography)

The furniture, artwork, and other design details have as much if not more presence than the human figures who hide their delightful depravity in the shadows and corners of rooms, making discovering them akin to a game of Where’s Waldo for perverts. This is not to say the décor is free of sleaze either. Along with the larger paintings, the show also includes a selection of gouache on paper that highlights smaller objects—a tea kettle, a rocking horse, a place setting—sometimes coyly rendered with a thrillingly tasteless twist. For instance, Place Setting boasts a plate with a bum being gripped by hands on the opposite side, surrounded by tulips and other floral designs. A blow job? Who can tell?! All I want to know is where do I get this dishware?!

As seen in the proliferation of tulips on my new favorite plate, many of Buckwalter’s chosen motifs are blatant references to traditional Pennsylvania Dutch aesthetics. The most obvious is the appearance of icons of PA Dutch folk art, namely circular hex signs, as seen in the kitchen of the double-decker painting Watching Secretary in the Basement, and hand-drawn illustrations known as fraktur, one of which is affixed to the wall in Home Alone. By directly depicting these artworks, the artist firmly plants her imagery within a specific regional American history. For example, fraktur, named for its unique lettering, arrived in Pennsylvania along with German immigrants in the 18th century, who used this elaborate style filled with birds and flowers for official documents such as birth certificates, baptism records, and marriage certificates. With this anachronistic whimsy, it would be easy to assume that Buckwalter’s collision of folk art and filth is an attempt to shatter and subvert the inherent conservatism signaled by these aesthetic traditions, as well as the rural world from which they derive.

Installation view of Anne Buckwalter’s Reins on a Rocking Horse at Rachel Uffner Gallery (Courtesy of the artist and Rachel Uffner Gallery, New York; Photo: Stan Narten: JSP Art Photography)

But, I don’t think that’s the case. In fact, that take is not only tired but exactly the kind of self-congratulatory urban ignorance that assumes major cities are the only ones without a population of neuters and prudes. Which we know isn’t true as those coastal pearl-clutchers are whining about San Francisco’s Folsom Street Fair yet again. It’s not as if famed representations of kink always play out in the settings they’re “supposed” to be either. Isn’t that part of the attraction? A secretary delivering papers in a dimly lit law office while sporting cuffed restraints isn’t exactly routine, but that’s one of the most memorable—and let’s be honest, hot—scenes in Steven Shainberg’s 2002 psychosexual romp Secretary (which is notably joined by the more recent film Sanctuary in a list of warped dom/sub semi-romantic comedies (this time with Margaret Qualley’s Rebecca as the dominant partner) in which you hope those crazy kids can just work it out). Even though it was released more than twenty years ago, Secretary looms large in Reins on a Rocking Horse. While the most direct reference is Watching Secretary in the Basement, which features a projection of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Lee Holloway bent over a desk, I’m more drawn to Four Peas, And As Much Ice Cream As You Want. This painting pays tribute to one of the most deliciously deranged meals put on film: Lee’s gleefully restrictive plate of peas as ordered by James Spader’s E. Edward Grey. Other callbacks to Secretary are more tangential as in the title of The Moon’s Too Bright/The Chain’s Too Tight, quoting Leonard Cohen’s deep crooning “I’m Your Man,” a mainstay of Secretary’s sultry soundtrack.

What’s with all this Secretary imagery? Buckwalter may just be particularly obsessed with the film, which is a fixation I can respect. Yet, I see a connection in the interplay between the film’s set design and erotic action and Buckwalter’s own. Though Edward’s law office may not have the rustic charm of Buckwalter’s domestic interiors, the space does feature a similarly heavy botanical theme, from floral wallpaper to the presence of orchids, carefully tended to by Edward. As with the unlikely power trip playground of the office, Buckwalter’s work shows how these sexual practices can—and do—exist alongside and within the pastoral. Rather than breaking an ideal, a bed covered with a blue-hued, eight-pointed star quilt, outlined with the alphabet, can also be strewn with a negligee, a grey high-heeled boot (perfect for stomping), and an open book of shoe fetish pics and other porn as in Good Listener. Looking at Buckwalter’s work is like being let in on a secret—that beyond those prim Dutch lace curtains hangs a leopard-printed sex sling. A jarring contrast, sure, but not one that the pastoral cannot hold.

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