San Francisco

Katherine Sherwood

In Katherine Sherwood’s newest body of work, the predominant theme is luck, examined in several of its most peculiar and intrinsically random forms. Set against a ground of paper glued onto canvas, signs and symbols of magic, gambling, and apocalypse reveal themselves gradually, almost coyly, with a little detective work. In many of these paintings, vaguely organic-looking figures and diagrams turn out to be “white magic seals of the spirits”: runes to which specific powers are ascribed. One confers wit and humor; another helps someone get ahead on the job, and a third grants peace of mind. Delicately brushed in black over pale, often luminous surfaces, these figures suggest a language lost over time, suppressed by a combination of religion and rationalism. Yet, as Sherwood intends to remind us, the once-upon-a-time world such symbols come from—in which the vast majority do whatever they can to induce good fortune, while a favored few enjoy disproportionate wealth, fame and power—has all but returned again. Raw, random luck has more to do with success, Sherwood seems to imply, than we 20th-century rationalists would like to admit. When candy-pink stripes and patterns of vivid green and orange dots invite a closer look at these paintings, it becomes apparent that their paper surface consists of the fronts and backs of used bingo cards, amassed during the five years Sherman lived above a bingo parlor.

In some of the larger canvases in this show, another track is added to the mix. Cloudy, grayish blurs, printed on rice paper and collaged onto the canvas like the cards, turn out to have a surprisingly political overtone. These compositional elements are actually derived from photographs that comprise another series, one in which Sherwood explored what modern technology has made visible—from x-rays to satellite photos. In the context of this show, pictures of a nuclear explosion on Bikini Atoll, for example, suggest that power-like any other form of good fortune—sometimes comes and goes as a result of providence (i.e., we had the bomb first). The Cold War era (arguably, the world’s biggest poker game) is invoked in another painting, in which infrared spy photos compete with the pink-striped backs of the bingo cards.

Despite their newness, there is an attractive, dated quality to these paintings. Something about Sherwood’s palette, her quirky scribbled lines, even the half-painted-over numbers and grids of the cards, speaks of ’50s or early-’60s design. That this was an era distinguished for its piquant mixture of optimism and growth with greed, lies, and fear is no accident. Sherwood’s beautifully painted concatenations of color and symbols are either profoundly hopeful, profoundly cynical, or both. They are also reminders that all of us, whether we like it or not, are taking a ride on the wheel of fortune these days, and need all the luck we can muster.

Maria Porges