New York

Catherine McCarthy

David Beitzel Gallery

A post-Modern painter with a penchant for the art-historical canon, Catherine McCarthy borrows freely from pictorial sources as disparate as Piero della Francesca, David Salle, Albrecht Dürer, and her own family scrapbook. An excavation of memories of a Catholic girlhood punctuated by dreamy flights into the history of painting, these works are mildly nostalgic, always polished, and overarchingly poetic.

In glazed, multilayered canvases filled with details of landscapes, calligraphic notation, and pentimenti, she quotes liberally from both art and literature, creating a narrative out of disjunctive images. In Emergency Kisses, 1994, for example, fragments toward the construction of a tale are offered in the form of dream images inhabited young girls and the letter E.

The strongest painting, Straight Is the Gate, 1994, is the most direct display of McCarthy’s struggle to liberate herself from the rigidity of her artistic and religious education. In this work, classically rendered female saints float beneath an intemperate, burnt-red and ochre rain. Brusque swaths of white overpainting cross the lower half of the picture while a serene pink-and-blue sky drifts above. A ghostly crown hangs like a storm cloud at one side of the picture, while a vertically positioned, hand-lettered text is faintly readable at the other. Alternately opaque and transparent, this painting is animated by its contradictory elements. By contrast, The Wool Winder, 1994, in which McCarthy appropriates fashion-magazine images, a Michelangelo drawing of Samson and Delila, and a family photo, is little more than a varnished, post-Modern greeting card.

It is clear that McCarthy has worked hard to generate discussion about the viability of painting. In How Words Become Rivers, 1994, she places a delicate branch in the middle of two panels whose scumbled surface is marked by excerpts from Jack Kerouac’s Visions of Gerard. These excerpts, in keeping with McCarthy’s practice of turning pictorial elements on their heads, are presented on their side. As I discovered, one does a lot of neck-craning at a McCarthy show. Da, 1994, requires less athleticism on the part of the viewer but seems more strained. In this towering triptych, McCarthy leaves complex overpainting behind to produce a variation of Piero della Francesca’s St. Nicholas, his head replaced by ersatz Donald Judd boxes framing the hand of St. Michael, and his feet replaced by Van Gogh–inspired shoes.

The bothersome thing about McCarthy’s work is that, because it so often calls attention to the painstaking nature of its facture, it becomes an affected display of technical virtuosity. A little irony here could go a long way. Still, McCarthy’s efforts to claim a place for herself strike an engaging balance between quiet reference and willful abandon.

Linda Yablonksy