Sara Erenthal (Photo: Meryl Meisler)

The Storefront Project is currently covered in upcycled canvases. Sara Erenthal, one of the city’s most notable and prolific street artists, has moved her works to Orchard Street. 

If you take long, aimless walks around Brooklyn like I do, you’ve likely come across Erenthal’s work at some point. She draws those graphically simple female faces, recognizable for their triangular cheeks, oversized eyes, and little red mouths. The faces are all hers, she says—but she calls them “subconscious” self-portraits, depictions of herself that have been stylized away from strict identifiability. “It’s not a very literal representation, but a representation of emotion,” she told me. “My voice.” 

This isn’t the only style she works in, but it’s what she has become known for. She’s also known for repurposing found objects into canvases, “upcycling” them. Her portraits often materialize on discarded things, the mattresses, refrigerators, and wood panels that dot the city’s gutters—and they can vanish as quickly as they appear, whenever intrigued passersby feel moved to take them home. “I’m making art accessible, giving people a chance to pick up an original piece,” she said, of the benefits of this practice. “And I’m cleaning up street corners!”

Because her style is abstracted, almost cartoon-like, the portraits can feel quite universal. Many women, the artist reports, have expressed that they connect with her self-depictions, and it’s not hard to see why that would be. Erenthal frequently pairs her faces with small, sincere quips, messages like “Perfectly Flawed,” which she once wrote on a hairline-cracked mirror. Or “Lift Me Up,” which appeared on a prone, hingeless door. The themes she’s most interested in include “displacement, survival, and liberation,” which she explores all over New York through feminine figuration. There’s something wide-reaching about this practice, like she’s conducting an investigation into female power and pain, writ large. 

But with Backstory, the solo exhibition she and curator Nina Blumberg opened at the Storefront Project last week, Erenthal is sharing very personal experiences. The exhibition consists of self-portraits in the recognizable style, largely on repurposed surfaces like thrift-store paintings, art prints, and old photographs (they’re for sale at gallery prices, but still maintain many of the qualities of her free public art). They work together to tell viewers about Erenthal, a self-taught artist who was raised in Borough Park, Brooklyn, in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. She left home at the age of 17 to avoid an arranged marriage, to live a secular life, and to chase her creative impulses. Echoes of the religious part of her past recur in the exhibition: a self-portrait laid over an old photograph of an Orthodox person, for example, is called “You Can Take the Girl out of the Village.” 

Other lived experiences and eras appear, too, with equal clarity. Erenthal explores intense romance in pieces like “I’m Infatuated,” in which a self-portrait is laid over a blooming white flower. And her journey toward discovering her artistic style appears in “I Didn’t Want to Draw Apples,” a piece in which portraiture literally trumps still life. The exhibition’s title takes on multiple meanings, with all of this historical digging in mind: the upcycled canvases each have a backstory, because they were once something else, but Erenthal’s personal backstory is on display, too. Each image becomes a chapter in a larger autobiographical narrative.

Still, even with all this intimate excavation, there’s something inclusive or relatable about each of the faces in Backstory. As with the street portraits, there’s enough interpretive malleability in their features to allow for broad identification. “It’s just a very raw, primal, human expression,” Erenthal mused, when I asked why she thought her own repeated visage spoke to so many people. “There’s no definition of race or nationality…it’s feminine, of course, but it could be anyone.” In this way, her somewhat generalized iconography can speak very deeply to individualized experiences. Her own, of course, particularly in Backstory. But also—in this gallery, or in passing on a street corner—almost anyone’s. 

“Backstory” is on display through August 18 at Lower East Side gallery The Storefront Project. The gallery is open to the public from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday.