New York

Kathe Burkhart

Greathouse

Print ads for Elizabeth Taylor’s recent autobiography featured a word from the actress. Her toughest role, she said, had been playing the “new” her. By “new” what she actually meant was her legend, the most famous aspect of which she has recently regained with the help of a crash diet and some flattering makeup—this after years of distinctly unlegendary behavior. Alcoholism and obesity may have threatened to demystify her allure, but they also provided a far more complex entertainment than her characters in National Velvet or Cleopatra ever had. Certainly these problems, and the enigmatic subtext that they’ve generated, are of greater fascination than the honesty promoted by this “new” Taylor as compensation for what’s left of her beauty.

Painter Kathe Burkhart sees something of herself in the actress’ ups and downs. Every image in every work in the show—her first solo exhibition in New York—was copied verbatim from the actress’ movie and publicity stills. The enlarged images, some more than 8 feet long or high, are filled in with glamorous if slightly hysterically pitched acrylic colors. Very awkwardly made in every respect, their consistency from canvas to canvas suggests that the artist’s “stalled development” is part of the idea. Burkhart presents a kaleidoscope of Taylor’s made-up lives, based on stills from some of the actress’ most melodramatic or hopelessly blissful scenes, but injected with elements of the messier real world of the viewer. Each work’s title is a slang phrase or expletive (Mindfuck, Fuck You, Prick, Dick, Fucked Up), visible as a slogan printed crookedly across the top or bottom like a stenciled graffito or a memo stamped CANCELED or CENSORED, making Liz look like a defaced Fragonard. These paintings seem as put off by the romantic cliché propagated by Hollywood as they were drawn obsessively to one of its symbols.

As personal as the works are—and some are so personal that they look more like self-portraits than portraits—their feminism remains fiercely anarchical. The artist’s ambivalence is partly a narcotic to blur the distinctions between Taylor’s “life” and hers, sure. But it is also a kind of diversionary tactic. Burkhart’s identification is colored by her distaste for the pageant that stardom so often entails for women. It’s a system whose knee-jerk conventions Taylor’s presence has questioned for more than thirty years. By reinterpreting key scenes from the actress’ career as gaudy, posterlike illustrations for everyday epithets, Burkhart managed a hat trick. She identified what was wrong with these pictures, rendered her own alternatives guilty by association, and brought her defiance of well-crafted, psychologically dead art into sharp focus.

Dennis Cooper