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THE BODY OF PAINT

By JOHN YAU

Printed with permission. Originally published in the 2001 Exhibition Catalogue for Katherine's show at Gallery Paule Anglim

 

I.

The highly compressed, layered space the viewer encounters in Katherine Sherwood's recent paintings suggests that she is making an analogy between paint and the body. This feeling is reinforced when one learns about the origins of Sherwood‚s distinctive vocabulary, which I will discuss later on in this essay. At this point, however, I want to focus on what I believe is the importance of Sherwood's analogy, which radically subverts its original formulation by Willem de Kooning. For by articulating a constructive alternative to de Kooning‚s analogy between paint and flesh as she does, Sherwood contributes to a current of possibility in abstract painting that many have presumed ended in the 1950s. In doing so, she causes us to rethink our paradigms regarding painting and abstraction, both its past and its future.

When de Kooning posited that oil paint existed because it was the only material capable of depicting the sensuality of the flesh, he was thinking of the body as surface and gesture. In his "women" paintings, he depicted his subjects as confrontational and openly displaying themselves. They can be monstrous and comic, terrifying and unself-conscious, languid and ill-at-ease, flayed and immense. They are the artist's disturbingly provocative equivalent of woman as mythical presence. In this sense, de Kooning didn't question the tradition of painting that subjects women's bodies to the male gaze.

Sherwood, however, not only subverts this long, heavily encrusted tradition, but she also makes it new from within the realm of gestural abstract painting. It is this aspect of her work, which I want to emphasize, particularly as it is manifested by her commitment to painting and all that such a physically demanding engagement requires. In both their means and their result, Sherwood's abstract paintings call attention to the fact that the body isn't a theoretical site, but a physical one. And, as a physical site, it is one that is heavily contested in every area of contemporary life and its attendant discourses.

In her recent paintings, Sherwood derives much of her recent vocabulary from two sources: Lemegeton, or The Lesser Key of Solomon, a seventeenth-century handbook of sorcery in which the calligraphic emblems are said to have been drawn by King Solomon, and angiograms (or X-rays) of the blood vessels in the artist's brain. Formally, what the emblems and angiograms share is their curving linearity. In fact, given that one comes from the ancient past and the discipline of magic, and the other comes from the present and science, the resemblance between them is as fascinating as it is compelling.

Sherwood uses a different medium to translate each of her sources, incorporate them into her paintings. For the emblems she uses the historical medium of paint, which she pours. For the angiograms, however, she uses the modern medium of photolithography. Thus, the particular medium she uses to translate each of her sources echoes their distance from each other in time. And by bringing these disparate realities into close proximity, she reminds us that seeing is not singular, that one is always encountering multiple, interlocking realities and identities.

Sherwood first incorporated calligraphic emblems (or stylized linear structures) into her work in 1993, but in recent years these linear symbols have taken on an added significance, particularly in relationship to the angiograms. Known as "Solomon Seals," these seemingly decorative traceries are believed to embody forces capable of curing illnesses, granting desires, bringing wisdom to its bearer. Once they are understood as talismanic presences, the viewer recognizes that the emblems exist on the border between the sacred and the secular, superstition and faith, bodily desire and spiritual yearning.

Sherwood began introducing photolithographs of her angiograms into her paintings after 1997, which is when she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage on the left side of her brain. Among other things, the hemorrhage caused her to lose the motor skills on the right side of her body. Formerly right handed, the artist had to learn how to use her left hand in order to paint again.

While it understandable that much has been made of Sherwood's extremely traumatic experience, I think it is time we begin shifting the bulk of our attention back to her paintings. Otherwise, we are apt to diminish their considerable power. In the case of Chuck Close, for example, critical attention is paid largely to his paintings rather than to his physical condition. For while it is apparent that painting and recovery are inextricably linked in the case of both Sherwood and Chuck Close, this conjunction should neither be understood or presented in a reductive manner. If anything, Sherwood's overlaying and juxtaposing of "Solomon Seals" and photolithographs of angiograms extends beyond both purely formal and purely personal issues. This is because Sherwood's paintings, and the means by which they are made, are directed towards personal, art historical and public issues. For what is of central concern to the artist is the body's contested site.

II.

Fidelity and Fidelity II (both 2000) are among Sherwood's recent paintings. In scale, Fidelity immediately feels related to the furthest limits of the artist's reach both in height and width. Although Sherwood pours the paint onto a horizontal surface, and works at it from all sides, the vertical world is clearly very much on her mind. I think Sherwood‚s refusal to deny the effects of gravity on the vertical world is because she doesn't want her painting to become a fiction. In this regard, she differs her work immediately from that of Jackson Pollock's poured paintings, which nullify gravity. While Fidelity II is smaller and more intimate than Fidelity, its insistently physical, multi-layered surface shares something with its larger, similiarly named predecessor. The similiarities and differences between them are telling.

In Fidelity, a pale greenish-blue rectangle occupies the upper right quadrant of the painting, as well as extends significantly beyond its undemarcated borders. Because the rectangle‚s top and right edges are defined by the painting's physical edges, one not only senses that the rectangle extends beyond them, but also concludes that what is visible is a portion of something larger. At the same time, this feeling that only a portion of the rectangle is visible is counterbalanced by our awareness that it is also obscuring what is beneath it. Thus, Sherwood punctuates the rectangles with rows of circular openings in which one sees both the milky white ground and twisting yellow lines. Each opening is partially framed by rounded band, the result of a thick white pour which has hardened and cracked, like sun-baked mud.

Aligned beneath the pale greenish-blue rectangle, and taking up the painting's rather constricted, lower right quadrant is an angiogram, an emblematic tracery of poured greyish-violet paint, and poured, circular brown skeins of paint. Everywhere one looks there are echoes, between the grainy lines of the angiogram and the circular brown skeins, say, as well as between the brown skeins and the partially visible yellow ones up above. Among other things, Sherwood defines looking as the act of making associations and connections. Thus, we enter a territory not only of association but also of metaphor. And having done so, we might deduce the following, that the circular openings in the green rectangle are cellular structures, as well as evidence that beneath every calm surface is a world teeming with activity.

As I stated at the outset of the essay, I believe Sherwood's paintings shift de Kooning's analogy of paint and flesh away from the gendered figure to the contested site of the body. Here, it might also be useful to rethink what happened in the shift from Abstract Expressionism, its definition of space, and Minimalism, both its insistence on flatness and Frank Stella's theorizing summary, "What you see is what you see." We know, of course, that the world is far more complex and active than the one alluded to in Stella's paradigm. Thus, in her recent paintings, Sherwood contributes to a further shifting away from Minimalism's emphasis on flatness, as well as compels us to rethink any conclusions we might have reached regarding Abstract Expressionism. That she does so in a forward looking way, rather than a nostalgic one, is one reason why her paintings convince us of their absolute necessity.

In Fidelity II, 2000, Sherwood cuts the photolithographs of her angiogram into a four circles, a kind of cloverleaf, which she adheres to the lower right hand quadrant of the painting's whitish enamel, monochromatic ground. The angiogram‚s circular format suggests that we are looking through a lens, and that we are glimpsing a small part of something far larger. Meanwhile, the X-ray is an abstract image which reminds one of roots, cilia, hair, a tangle of wires, and something seen under a microscope. Over these photolithographs, and to a large extent framing them, Sherwood has poured four violet circular trails. The thickly poured trails both echo the dense swirl of lines in the X-rays and remain distinct from them.

At the center of where the four photolithographs overlap, Sherwood has poured a blackish, rounded, irregular form, which she frames with an irregular, poured trail of thicker whitish paint. Deliberately penetrated by numerous fissures, the whitish border seems to have been marked by time passing. Meanwhile, rising up from the rounded black form, and its cracked whitish border, and toward the painting's topmost edge, is a relatively wide umber band. One is reminded of a column or tree trunk rising from, in this case, the photolithograph's snarl of tiny roots. Along the the top edge is a whitish band which spirals in at one end. Like the other thick whitish pour, its surface is marked by a network of deep fissures.

By making each pour of paint a different density, as well by making each of these gestures achieve a distinctive physical presence, Sherwood is able to articulate a highly various surface. The different consistencies of the paint insures that what the viewer keeps returning to is the various layered and interlocking forms. Consequently, the viewer senses that there is always something more beneath and behind something else, that reality consists of multi-layered things in a state of constant if largely undetectable change. Certainly in this regard, one recognizes that Sherwood's paintings are deeply connected to the way one experiences one's own body in time.

III.

Sherwood's juxtaposition of a "Solomon Seal" with an angiogram brings her paintings into a realm where magic and science meet. The larger issue, of course, is the relationship between faith and reason, between what the eye can see and cannot see. But this is not all that Sherwood does. Far more is at stake than the setting of one thing (or identity) against another. Through her controlled pouring of thick, lava-like paint, Sherwood is able to transform the linear aspects of the emblematic seal into slowly curving forms. It's as if a river has just frozen or is just about to begin melting. Sherwood not only subverts Abstract Expressionism's speed, but she also arrives at something very different emotionally than either Franz Kline's slashing, piled-up strokes or Jackson Pollock's skittering, twisting arabesques. In contrast, her paintings convey a world under slow but constant pressure; they neither overcome gravity nor fully succumb to it.

It is unlikly that one will associate states of ecstasy and exuberance with Sherwood's paintings. Rather, her gestures are like trails of different colored frozen liquids and fissured trails, evidence of a world undergoing continual but minute, undetectable changes. Sherwood reinforces the viewer's sense that time has been deliberately slowed down by bringing a horizontal world full of immoveable liquid-like forms into a vertical realm. And if this denial of gravity brings her into a territory we associate with Pollock, her fissured forms remind us that time cannot be completely halted, that decay and destruction are an inevitable result of time passing.

Meanwhile, by incorporating a picture which shows us something that cannot be seen by the naked eye, the angiogram calls into question our physical relationship to the painting. Are we glimpsing a section of something very small? Are we looking at different interior layers of a body? And, if it is the interior of a body that is being shown to us, what will we learn about the exterior body or even the person?

IV.

While it seems safe to suggest that Sherwood's paintings are about her body, I think that such a reading is reductive and overlooks the larger, more pressing issues her work addresses. By juxtaposing abstract emblems derived from a seventeenth century book on sorcery with photolithographs of the blood vessels found in the brain, the artist brings us face to face with an ongoing crisis in America and elsewhere: What is a body and who presides over it?

At the same time, and in contrast to art that is explicitly political or social, Sherwood challenges many presumptions associated with Abstract Expressionism, particularly regarding the obsolescence of the gestural and the death of painting. In paintings such as Fidelity and Fidelity II, it is obvious that gesture and poured paint did not end with Pollock. In fact, in the right hands, gesture and poured painting become something altogether different and new. This is only part of what Sherwood has achieved in her recent work. For the attentive, open-minded viewer there is clearly much, much more to speculate upon.

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