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Gesturing From Within

By JUAN RODRIGUEZ

Juan Rodriguez is a contributing editor of Artweek and a free-lance writer, living in the East Bay.

Printed with permission. Originally published in the 1999 Adaline Kent Award Exhibition Catalogue.

By 1993 Katherine Sherwood had introduced emblems from a medieval manuscript, called THE LEMEGETEN, into her work. The calligraphic emblems in THE LEMEGETEN are said to have been drawn by King Solomon. These "Solomon Seals" represent forces that have the "ability to cure illness and disease...[help] with the acquisition of wealth...[and give] sophistication and worldly wisdom." Over the years the seals have moved in and out of Sherwood's work, but now they occupy a major role in her paintings, engendering, as the artist says, "art-making [as] a life-saving device."

The work in this exhibition was painted after Sherwood suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in the left hemisphere of her brain in the spring of 1997. This type of cerebro-vascular accident causes paralysis to motor skills on the right side of the body. Unable to control her right hand, Sherwood, in a matter of months, taught herself to paint with the left. These paintings are equally a testament to her courage to return to work in her studio, and to the power of her intelligence and desire to make paintings that reflect her life.

There is a clear and ordered quality to the compositions of Sherwood's paintings. The linear abstractions (which originate from her study of the Solomon Seals and her passionate interest in medieval manuscripts) and thick strokes of paint are overlaid and juxtaposed against photolithographs of angiograms (x-rays of the blood vessels in the artist’s own brain). These elements are laid on mostly monochrome grounds of white enamel paint or light tones of color. The application of paint and photo-graphic imagery contrast and then unify in the aesthetic completion of these paintings.

Contrasting imagery to express meaning has been present in Sherwood's work since her early paintings of female impersonators, male nudes, nuns, Madonnas, aggressive women, and brides. These fleshy, figurative paintings represent the collusion of gender and moral codes typified by a series of seven small paintings (which Sherwood stacks, five vertically and three across) resembling a jewel-studded Romanesque cross. These paintings exhibit the dichotomy between conventional and extreme modes of behavior embodied in one subject. From these early paintings one sees the unity within differences that recurs in Sherwood's work, and the prominent theme of the secular and the sacred intertwined.

Sherwood's use of medieval manuscripts is seen in the formal construction of her paintings. Deeply influenced by manuscript illuminations, Sherwood transforms their lettering into a system of personal symbols to communicate her meaning. She consistently utilizes circles composed of thin and thick strokes, and flatly painted geometric shapes that give the impression of paint on parchment. In KNOCK YOUR BLOCK OFF (1998) a red-orange square sits in the upper left-hand corner suggesting the beginning of a decorative border on a manuscript page. Diagonally across from it, at the painting’s lower right, a narrow shape extends into an open, irregular square resembling a table, an altar, or an illuminated initial.

Sherwood's contemporization of medieval manuscripts allows her work to slip between the stylistic conventions of Abstract Expressionist gesture, monochrome painting, and postmodern use of the photograph. The photolithographs imply a postmodern equivalent to the viscous materiality of paint.

The 1999 painting titled,TO RISE TO HIGH PLACES, is similar to KNOCK YOUR BLOCK OFF to the extent that both contain a squadron of rose-colored circles filled with images of blood vessels. In the former, Sherwood paints a large L-shaped gesture with a thick vertical stem and thin horizontal base, mirroring the edges of a pale square in the upper right corner.

Sherwood begins this work with six or seven coats of white enamel paint or a layer of thick sheets of paper extended to cover the surface of the canvas. By removing the visible texture of the canvas in this manner, Sherwood erases the reference to minimal painting in her work. The layers of paint are like a prolonged incantation that resonates with pure sound. Sherwood’s use of this deep, thick ground reflects an interior element that moves the viewer to another level of imagery and meaning.

In contrast to these two paintings, Sherwood creates a ground for BOLD OF HEART (1997) by covering the canvas with images of a Soviet missile site, photographed by a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) satellite. This covert imagery is ironically available for all to see. In this work Sherwood shifts the ground from an undifferentiated field on which meaning and information are compressed, to a site filled with information through repetition. Sherwood attempts to stop the all-seeing eye of the spy camera by layering abstract images in opposition to the surveillance photographs. By joining together abstract painting and photo-collage Sherwood strains the boundaries of the two media, trying to unify their differences.

One way to perceive Sherwood's paintings is as a gathering and personification of signs. By analogy, the images in her work can be seen as a collection of amulets worn around a person's neck to understand, and maybe control, the power of good and evil.

Signification, or meaning created through the opposition of form and content, has set the theme for this exhibition. Yet, Sherwood's paintings contain a quality that penetrates the work like the images of animals drawn on the walls of Lascaux. Perhaps best described by Maurice Merleau-Ponty:

"I would be a great pains to say where is the painting I am looking at. For I do not look at it as I do a thing; I do not fix it in its place. My gaze wanders in it as in the halos of Being. It is more accurate to say that I see according to it, than that I see it."

Our sense of being in the world, like breathing, effortlessly flows in and out of our bodies. It is the nature of art, in particular the art of painting, to present the viewer with what is both seen and unseen. The act of painting, and its parallel the act of viewing, penetrates our dualistic ideas of existence: what is inside or outside, what is fluid or solid, what is visible or invisible. Sherwood's paintings, as well as having clear and distinct subject matter, contain this penetrating quality that gives them an elusive sense of being, an ambiguity that can be understood by the oppositional forces embodied in her work.

Sherwood builds her paintings horizontally — the multiple applications of paint for the ground, the addition of photolithographs, and finally the abstractions and gestural marks complete the painting. By this method of working gravity is nullified, or at least neutralized. Lines and gestures are controlled to allow the viewer to visually travel through the intricate, painterly webs that cover the images of satellite photos or blood vessels.

To raise Sherwood's paintings vertically, to their intended viewing position, brings an additional layer of complication to the viewing of her work. The slashes of paint that cut across the surface of her canvases become ambiguously located. The photolithographs and the enamel grounds also lose their sense of position in space. The work becomes suspended between two worlds — the three-dimensional "real" world and the elusive two-dimensional world of painting. This ambiguity reveals an intense density and transparency simultaneously. For Sherwood, the drawn symbol becomes the meeting place of the visible and the invisible. In her paintings we see the desire to know the connections and differences between the seen and the unseen, the spiritual and the secular.

Sherwood has the ability to capture the macrocosmic, as well as the microscopic, in her work. Her vision reveals a great sensitivity towards and importance in symbols and signs. She identifies differences in order to gain understanding. The sacred and the secular, the figure and the ground, the real and the imaginary, the inside and the outside, the open line and the completed shape—these are terms that Sherwood uses to express her meaning, and to communicate that, like the Solomon Seals, these paintings are "conduits of desire."

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