Caitlin Keogh’s artworks narrate the unfinishable story of living in a female body. In “Waxing Year,” her show at Overduin & Co., she presented twenty paintings and collages that revealed how women create themselves while being fractured, unraveled, and trammeled by oppressive forces. In Waxing Year 3, 2020, Keogh paints a kind of existential vision board. Its focal point, a trompe l’oeil postcard of a broken classical sculpture of a walking woman, is “pinned” to the far-right side of the canvas, so that the statue looks as if it might wander off the painting’s stage. Nearby are the weft and warp of a tapestry, an upside-down leafless tree, a rampant lion, and a mirror. Keogh engages a crowded and morphing illustrative style, like that of Lari Pittman, with whom she also shares an ability to transform bricolage into politically acute messaging.
One of the keys to Keogh’s work is her play with her paintings’ borders, where portals open and vegetation germinates only to spill off the edge, leaving the viewer to complete the saga. In the compelling trio of works Waxing Year 5–7, 2021, which rush at the viewer in a cacophony of blues, golds, reds, and wrecked physiques, we confront another postcard. This time the image is of a headless Nereid (a sea nymph), which creates a counterpoint to a Samothracian female figure that leaps across the chasm between the paintings. A fragmented weaving floats in the background, its grid offsetting the chaos of winged penises escaping a cage, neon clocks, caterpillars, gold-filled gashes or burn holes, a scattering of pearls, a bagpipe-playing sloth, and a drawing of a crazily pregnant humpty-dumpty creature. As in Waxing Year 3, ribbons, plant life, and doilies or clouds tumble off the painting’s brink into potentiality.
One work with an intact margin, Figure 1, 2021, helps us understand that, for Keogh, the frame is a form of violence. Such enclosures capture paintings’ legends and purport to tell their beginnings, middles, and ends. In Figure 1, figure and ground are differentiated: A headless nude Venus floats in the center of a dark backdrop, which thrusts her forward. A drawing of the humpty-dumpty creature has been tacked onto the figure’s breasts, and green caterpillars writhe on her collarbone and hip. Unlike the characters in Waxing Year 3 or Waxing Year 5–7, which look as if they might flee or as if they have learned to hop over the abyss, this protagonist is stuck firmly in place, and that place looks like death.
Keogh’s collages, wherein she affixes dilapidated sketches of flowers and postcards to mirrors, address the problems taken up in the paintings and invite the viewer to help solve them. In Rose Poem 9, 2020, we regard simultaneously our own reflection and a pocked line drawing of a bloom; the artist modeled the holes in the drawing on ancient, deliquescing Egyptian papyri owned by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Keogh attaches a postcard of caryatids to this composition and prints above it a line of verse by poet Charity Coleman, MEASURES / ACROSS THE RIVER / UNCEASING, which creates fruitful tension with the dilemma of the decaying blossom. Spying ourselves between the cracks, we are encouraged to take unhalting action against disintegration, even if the possibilities of resolution feel remote. Keogh echoes these gestures in Rose Poem 7, 2020. In this piece, a postcard showing a Renaissance painting of a white woman reading a book hovers over shredded posies. Soaring above the petals is another Coleman quote, THE ERRANT VESTIGES / OF SKIPPING OUT, which proposes an intriguing strategy for coping. And in Rose Poem 1, 2020, Keogh repeats the motif, though here the postcard is of an abstract drawing by Paul Klee—which, by the by, resembles the bògòlanfini textiles of Malian artists.
Rose Poem 1 makes us wonder what will happen when Keogh further expands her references. As scholars such as Sara Bond have taught us, classical sculpture was not originally unadorned white marble but was often brightly painted. When these works were created, race as we understand it had not been invented, and the idea that Greek figures’ marmoreal pallor represents racial whiteness is ahistorical as well as racially problematic. Yet modern viewers do persist in reading these relics through a certain racial lens. Similarly, Renaissance painting did much to centralize white femininity within the Western imagination. What other broken women might leap over the edge in Keogh’s virtuosic pantheon? What other people could escape from the damaged garden of white supremacy and cisheteropatriarchy?