Caitlin Keogh: Waxing Year
On ViewOverduin & Co.
February 14 – April 3, 2021
At the final edge of Caitlin Keogh’s Waxing Year (2020–21)—a painting cycle that lends its name to the artist’s solo debut at the Los Angeles gallery Overduin & Co.—there appears an image of a photo postcard, outsized and tucked behind a stalk of red seaweed. Its subject is a Classical Greek sculpture housed in the collection of the British Museum; its caption, obscured by an algal blade, says something about a Nereid running, presumably over waves. This pictorial mimicry of a postcard featuring a photograph of a sculpture, which in turn depicts locomotion through water, typifies Waxing Year’s conceptual somersaults, and it offers a micro-lesson in appreciating the tumbling energy that activates Keogh’s presentation.
The postcard image is just the foremost visual strata of a many-layered meditation on representation in painting, and it looks, albeit with little regard for trompe l’oeil, to be secured by a pushpin to an ambiguous plane that functions as both wall and void. The tools of the empirical world—like the pushpin—are but skeuomorphic addenda in a pictorial ether that Keogh fills with ancient Roman apotropaic symbols, monsters akin to medieval grotesques, and ornamental pattern designs. Space, as we understand it in waking life, works only when it wants to and falls away without warning.
If one detects stress (about painting, perhaps about perception in general) coursing through Keogh’s grand scheme, it would be because the unexpected passing of the artist’s therapist informed its making. A matter of public knowledge thanks to the gallery notes, which took the form of a personal statement in lieu of a generic press release, the death of Keogh’s confidant required her to undertake her own dream analysis. A program of free association ensued. Viewing the painting Waxing Year sequentially—an impossibility at Overduin & Co., for it was installed out of order and across two rooms—one can see the program at work.
Waxing Year opens with two panels straddled by a valance of twisted cords. Parted, bundled, and wound like folded arms, these cords suggest entwinement, a concept that is woven throughout the painting’s seven panels. Above the cords, at their upper edges of the left panel, we find a sprouting tuber, emphasizing, perhaps, blind searching, non-linear extensions of the self, or personal growth. Together, the cords and the root introduce the viewer to what Keogh describes in her statement as a “subterranean realm of dreams emerging from the subconscious.” A fascinus—a winged penis—dives in from the far left of the first panel, emphasizing just how Freudian this realm can get.
But there are times when a winged penis is only a winged penis, and there are times when a painstakingly rendered weave pattern, here found stretching across panels three through six, is a meditation on Piet Mondrian’s compositional rigor. Keogh’s relationship with Mondrian stems from a visit to the modernist titan’s grave site, which prompted her to bring his aesthetic theories into conversation with her own. The weave pattern that forms a mesh across the entirety of panel six—the most visually dense in the cycle—would seem to stage a utopian matrix akin to that of Mondrian, but that same pattern also appears in panel four, truncated on all sides. Its bottom corners overlap ragged lines and brocade patterns, invoking the material culture of the applied arts and, by extension, its gendered history. A length of ribbon laced through the grid drives home the point that women craft workers mastered the grid’s potential for world-building long before Mondrian set his rectilinear agenda.
The painting is, all in all, pleasurably exhausting. That it is segmented further complicates the experience, as a viewer feels compelled to dart back and forth around the gallery attempting to piece the whole thing together, hoping that a tired mind can hold onto the connecting elements. So fragile is the impression, though, that the experience feels somewhat like running over waves.
Beyond the wake of Keogh’s monumental series, three works separate from, but related to, Waxing Year provide respite. Titled Figure 1, Figure 2, and Figure 3 (all 2021), these small paintings hang at focal points in the gallery, giving punctuation to an otherwise fragmentary configuration. Their main subject is the same: a headless, limbless female torso. Art historical convention has it that such depictions of the female body engage the Classical tradition; they participate in the study and appreciation of anatomical ideals established in Antiquity and carried into the present, glossing over an all-too-eager modern acceptance of the segmented body—segmented by man and time—as the ideal female form. The inversion of the torso in Figure 3, an image that shows the body upside-down and coming apart—signals distress on the one hand and defiance one the other, for inverting the familiar sight of a dismembered woman reveals, unvarnished, the barbarity that constitutes this cultural benchmark.
In Figure 1, a dull lavender figure stands against a dull black background. On her chest is the image of a terrible egg man whose features thwart description. On her right shoulder and left thigh cling two pale grubs; the grubs are, perhaps, under the skin. Simple yet disgusting, these wormy things make their mark on the viewer’s mind and return, albeit in traces, in the third series featured in the exhibition: ten collages mounted to mirrored panels titled Rose Poem 1–10 (all 2020). Their paper substrates are riven with trails that seem chewed by pests. Through the holes, which are flanked with lines of poetry by Charity Coleman and interrupted by museum postcards linked to the content of Waxing Year, one catches one's reflection. This encounter with one’s own gaze, worm eaten and implicated in the collaged structure of Keogh’s exhibition, breaks down the last barrier of space and time that the gallery environment typically indulges: the privilege of a voyeuristic remove. We are in the artist’s dreams; her dreams become ours. Keogh’s visual poetry has the tenacity of a parasite. It gets under one’s skin and stays there. As the calendar progresses, the intrigue that makes Waxing Year unforgettable seems unlikely to wane.