Monday, March 26, 2012


Natural Viewing:
It’s Not All About Sex and Death
By John Zinzer

Catherine Howe, addressing me, an abstract painter, is adamant: “This work is not about representation.” This outburst comes shortly after I arrive in her cramped New York Garment District studio, finding myself surrounded by a lush series of recent paintings that depict a feast of images—fruit, some half-eaten, piled up high on gleaming silver platters, intertwined with sinuous flora, phantom fleshy body parts, even a floating pig’s head—all deliciously ripe to the brink of rotting. The forms rise vertically, swept across with blurring, velocity-driven brushstrokes, and hovered-over by clouds of diaphanous oil glazing that dissipate to immateriality. Clots of mottled substance roil beneath the surface. The sum result brings to my mind historian Simon Schama’s term, “an embarrassment of riches,” which he used to describe Dutch culture in the Golden Age. Though, in Howe’s more concise description, it’s simply “a deluge.”

A few minutes pass, and now I’m seeing something completely different. I’m fixed on the iron oxide red underpainting that is shared by this series, its insistent all-overness and uninflected color. Suddenly, there is a quite literalist backdrop for this urgent agglomeration of form. What was previously naturalistic highlighting cast upon representational objects becomes anything but, yielding to the tactility of pure paint. Howe assures me that I am experiencing the natural viewing process, one that follows closely her working method. The painting is “re-grounding” itself.

Now the dynamic is established—a polarity, a push-pull tension between perceived space and material veracity, an oxymoronic logic, a painting playing by its own set of rules. If the depicted object has highlights, then it’s real. There are clear art historical sources, Chardin, among others. But all these readings collapse in the moment of the painting’s actual making. “At a certain point, I’m not looking at anything, I’m just painting,” Howe tells me.

Two hours of conversation follow, punctuated by assertions, “I am nature” (after Jackson Pollock) or “I am God” (a mimetic response to the archetypal male abstract painter ego). Both statements have to do with painting as an act of creation. Or, alternately, denials: “It’s not all about sex and death.” Think, post-structuralist negation. There are autobiographical footnotes, as well, with Howe still channeling her 1970s high school pangs of female adolescent angst (to the remembered soundtrack of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven). And always there are busy interjections, as the artist is, at every point, fighting for herself, or, alternately, fighting against herself. Either way, she’s always critical. And I use that term in the most generous sense of the word. As I keep seeing that criticality coming back into her paintings.

Howe adopts identities to construct a larger allegorical framework. Here she is Persephone, Greek goddess of innocence and queen of the underworld, who has tasted the pomegranate of carnality and been banished. Here she is Pygmalion’s muse, having been schooled by the New York artworld intelligentsia into a model of false perfection. Here she is Frankenstein, an assemblage of body parts stolen from the morgue of figurative painting. So she arrives, painting again, with renewed purpose.

— John Zinsser

Michèle C. Cone
I have always been intrigued by the name given in French and in English to the genre of painting that features on a table a casual array of things like fruit, flowers, dead birds, glasses, candles, vases, skulls, books, and more. In English, it is “still life,” an expression that connotes a thing living in a pose of arrested motion, while in French the word for it is “nature morte,” which evokes a state of permanent stasis and death. Though Catherine Howe takes her motifs from the Continental tradition of nature morte, her transpositions are anything but static, her images swarm, boil over with energy, sensuality, abundance, and warmth. Her reds are hot but so are her blues, and her blacks.

Leafing through my favorite text on still life, Charles Sterling’s La Nature morte de l’antiquité au xxème siècle, I cannot find a single image to compare with Howe’s. Her paintings are not lessons in vanity -- symbolic allusions to time already lived and to life’s finality. Neither are they about things observed, expressively or photographically rendered in two dimensions. And yet her paintings share with the 17th century Dutch still life its color palette, and a flora and fauna barely piercing through abstract swirls, errant markings, and tiny spill marks. Maybe, Howe’s evocative paintings are not about still life per se, but about the naming of things transposed into paint, and the magical interaction between medium, memory and perception.

Michèle C. Cone

No comments:

Post a Comment