New York

Catherine Howe

Like some of the most interesting new figurative painters—notably John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage, and Brenda Zlamany—Catherine Howe begins with an essentially formal conceit that soon lurches into discomfiting psychological or social territory. In Howe’s case, the inaugural trope is a simple goof on the notorious figure/ground dichotomy: each canvas presents a “portrait” of a young woman, usually nude, as often black as white, done in a rather dashing, painterly style reminiscent of the Ashcan School, against a ground that cites Abstract Expressionism or its immediate derivatives.

In her last New York exhibition, as if to preclude the prevalent interpretation of her work as a simplistic denunciation of “the heroic/macho aspect of gesture painting” that her juxtapositon of realist female figures and AbEx grounds suggests, Howe worked at demonstrating that she could construct a perfectly seamless painting out of her figure/ground dichotomy. Having made her point, Howe returns, in her most recent work to disjunctiveness: the grounds, no longer reminiscent of Clyfford Still’s craggy forms, are now painted in the soft, nebulous, stainlike manner of lyrical abstraction while the paint that describes the figures, though still relatively thin, has more “body” and retains the trace of the formative gesture. Howe concedes to compositional unity by rendering certain “reflections” on the women’s bodies in colors keyed to those of the ground, giving the impression that the figures inhabit a uniformly colored atmosphere rather than stand against a simple backdrop. Yet, paradoxically, this strategy is so obviously a concession that the result is a heightened sense of disjunction.

There is also an increased awkwardness to the figures themselves, which takes its most extreme form in Souvenir, 1995. In this work the figure, atypically, seems to derive from Northern Renaissance sources. Not only is her anatomy oddly proportioned, as though Howe were imitating a male painter who’d never actually observed female anatomy, but in this painting the incursions of the blue ground into the figure no longer suggest reflections across the body’s surface but, rather, evidence of its decomposition. A similar technique is used in other paintings, at the bottom edge of the canvas, but the effect is nothing more than a sort of fade-out or conventionally unfinished look. When this technique is employed around the face as it is in Souvenir, it has a considerably creepier resonance. Likewise, the anomalous swipe of purple paint that interrupts the painting’s green-blue ground to the right of the figure’s head seems calculated to emphasize the similarly colored bunch of flowers that veils—again, as though with deliberate lack of persuasiveness—the disturbingly vague drawing of the hand that holds them.

As a work like Souvenir shows, Howe uses formal devices to call attention, not only to the devices themselves, but to questions about their extra-formal motivations or sources, which perhaps can only be answered negatively. Her depictions of black women function similarly. These are not portraits of real individuals but constructs generated from various pictorial sources, which beg to be read as emblematic figures—but of what? If anything can be discerned about Howe’s black women it is that there appears to be a higher ration of direct observation to art-historical derivation in these figures than in her white ones, as if she hoped to lend them a different kind of specificity or verisimilitude. If they are emblematic of anything, then, it may be of the irreducibility of images of black women to emblems of Black Woman—just as her quotations of Abstract Expressionsim elicit yet ultimately rebuff interpretations that see them as allegories of that tradition.

Barry Schwabsky