September 8 – October 29, 2016
Across the board, Caitlin Keogh’s work appears at first formally sound and visually engaging. Her paintings, rendered in flat acrylics, display a surface sexiness that draws the viewer in, underscored by a sophisticated color palette. Frequently, her colors are ostensible markers of the “feminine”—dusky pink, lavender, ruddy peach—but their tasty tonal values belie the unnerving subject matter that the works depict. Interrogating the tenets of fashion and beauty and their implications for the female form, Keogh replaces the seemingly light, crisp mood of her works with a sense of unease.
In Interiors (2016), a headless female body sits at center against a black and apricot checkered background. More mannequin than human, the figure has the most minimal of physical defining features—a few simple lines are all that indicate a heft of breast or curve of hip. Each hand holds a tassel, and the arms are positioned at a crosswise tension, as if pulling at a tie around the waist. Except, there is no waist. The ghostly space between the disembodied upper and lower half of its torso allows for the checked backdrop to peek through. It is as if the form has cinched her middle so tightly, she has cut her own body in half.
This work is especially trenchant in light of another painting hanging near the front of the gallery, and which sets the tone for much of the show. Repeating Autobiography (2016) renders the book Dior by Dior: the Autobiography of Christian Dior (the iconic fashion designer who popularized the appeal of the “feminine” cinched waist in the late 1940s). As if it were toppling off of a table and onto a reflecting surface, two iterations of the elegant book and their backward, mirror-image counterparts spill across the canvas. In certain spots, Keogh has painted areas that seem to suggest parts of the image have peeled away, like an old poster bill left too long in the rain. These “peel marks” are echoed around the room in a series of five works, all called Dior Fragment (2016). Each is a mirror affixed with a tattered sheet of paper on which passages from Dior’s book are written in calligraphy. Standing before one, a viewer has no choice but to take stock of her own appearance in the only partially obscured glass, speaking to an ambiguous “unraveling or tangling of a fixed self” that Keogh posits painting can describe.
But beneath the polished veneer of some of her works a barrier remains. In Headless Woman with Parrot (2016), for instance, (which references Courbet’s classic Woman with a Parrot (1886), one of many art historical nods in her work), a brilliant bird alights on the hand of another truncated dummy, midriff again severed. A pattern that insinuates a chain-link fence is painted across the canvas, as if the viewer were peering through it at the discomfiting scene. In this way, Keogh keeps the viewer at arm’s length—we are not yet allowed entirely in. Likewise in The Gentle Art of Making Friends (2016) a wild entanglement of lusty, Botticellian flowers—all pomegranate reds and tangerines—grow around a series of menacing swords, crisscrossing like a safeguard and rendered in stone cold white. Renaissance Painting (2016) depicts a French suit of armor shaped for a female body, with pom-pom-shaped flowers hovering as breasts, and two female hormonal glands protruding from its midsection—as though a body were trying to emerge from its protective shell.
Many ideas seem to be at play here, and Keogh is perhaps actively working through them. A tiny detail in Wuthering Nephron (2016) offers a telling clue, where a small hand holding a paintbrush, described by a pencil-thin line, appears to be painting the canvas itself. It is as if Keogh is realizing her contentions as she goes along. And while the multifarious sources cited throughout seem to point toward a developing thesis around the pervasive objectification of the female body through different facets of culture, the show, as it stands, still feels decidedly personal to the artist. One hopes that Keogh’s flashes of sharp insight will continue to evolve towards a more comprehensive whole—that she will someday push completely through her armor for an audience anxious to see what is beneath.