New York

Katherine Porter

David McKee Gallery

Boston-based Katherine Porter was one of the innumerable grid-worrying painters of the early ’70s; she has lately broken out with a great blast of eccentric energy, perhaps emboldened by the recent vogue of skewed, quirky abstraction, certainly adding her own note to it. Her paintings have a theatrical quality and the rough gaiety of big dogs. They are also manically sophisticated, as if a lifetime’s education were being regurgitated all at once. Recent Philip Guston has clearly been a decisive influence, and one could describe some of her paintings in terms that would fit some of his: inept-cartoony shapes in aggressively hot, dark or plummy colors, jumbled in shallow, stagelike spaces, the whole knitted by brushy facture of pasty or chalky pigment-choked oils.

But Porter is out to indulge, and show off, a wider repertoire than Guston’s “dumb” style allows. She hews to the abstract, for one thing, and her pictures are full of overpainted and scored stripes, spirals, patches, squiggles and “shadows” that make for jokey ambiguities in the pictorial space somewhat à la those manneristically exploited by James Havard. And her shapes and compositions seem jammed with homages to a very peculiar range of past art. I was variously reminded of German Expressionism, Marsden Hartley and Arthur Dove, plus mythological Pollock and early Still, and maybe de Chirico. There are also hints of the labyrinthine, stepped and arcaded spaces typical of some “art of the insane”—Adolf Wölfli, Martin Ramirez.

Heady stuff, which makes one shy of crediting too readily the expressionistic and symbolical undertones of the work: might they not be mere virtuoso theater, too? Nor do Porter’s insouciant titles—one is Jugglers, Puppets, Magicians, Egyptians—inspire a lot of confidence. Still, there’s a good, dark, pungent energy to the painting, and a liberating willingness to be “vulgar.” Some of her paintings look like the work of someone who, though crazy about painting, has never painted before. Porter being thoroughly skilled, this look is witty. Indeed, the literary mode nearest to Porter’s, as to most interesting new art today, is comedy. The question is whether it is serious comedy—a delight in taking the truth by surprise—or just facetiousness, with no thought to anything in particular.

Peter Schjeldahl