2276 East 16th Street
June 29 - August 3
It is an overwhelming experience to enter the installation of forty-eight tightly cropped portrait paintings of transgender men and women that makes up Katie Herzog’s solo exhibition “Transtextuality (SB 48).” The double row of black-and-white portraits encircling the small gallery confronts the viewer with too many faces to take in at a glance. The paintings—conceived of and titled as a singular work, Transtextuality (SB 48), 2013—materially and conceptually weave together a Gordian knot of disparate issues: transgender representation and identity politics, the status and role of painting as a medium, and the fate of information and historical memory in the digital age.
Herzog’s conceit is an update and inquiry of Gerhard Richter’s 48 Portraits, 1972, which features the faces of prominent figures—all male, all white—in the fields of literature, music, philosophy, and science, reproduced from images found in encyclopedias. Appearing during feminism’s second wave, Richter’s series was a statement of conservatism (and for that reason it was subject to a corrective reinvention in the paintings of an all-female, multiracial cast by Austrian Gottfried Helnwein in 1991). Now, Herzog brings together her painting practice and training in library and information science to reimagine Richter’s gesture in the wake of California’s Senate Bill 48, which passed in 2011, requiring social studies curricula to include LGBT figures. Her visual archive of mostly living trans leaders, from Susan Stryker to Lana Wachowski (and many lesser-knowns in between), provides a welcome education.
For a painter whose work leans toward the psychedelic, Herzog seems here to chafe at her self-imposed conceptual and formal constraints. The paintings’ somber arrangement is counterbalanced by fancifully articulated details of shadows, hair, necklines, and fabrics that embellish upon her source material—low-quality images culled from the Internet. Most surprisingly, though, the collective display of trans identity that one would expect to be foregrounded is almost undetectable, as if lost in the aftermath of a complicated chain of mediation between photography, digital image data loss, and the process of figurative painting. And that is warranted, for the feat of Herzog’s deeply humanistic project is to demonstrate that these transgendered men and women, above all, identify with their intellectual achievements.