New York

Robin Kahn

Robin Kahn’s work as an editor and an artist has entailed a close monitoring of the legacy of creative endeavors undertaken by women; at the same time she has continued to develop her own host of political themes. In Time Capsule: A Concise Encyclopedia by Women Artists, a hefty anthology she conceived and edited in 1995, writings and drawings submitted by women from around the world were arranged according to a charged lexicon, from “abstract porno” to “veils.” In this show of six paintings and a sculpture addressing female stereotypes in realms of fashion, the body, and labor, Kahn carried out her project in another medium. Family Tree, 1995, a quilt thrown casually over the base of a wooden chair, could serve as an emblem for her work; the quilt was embroidered with the names of women artists, from Rosa Bonheur to Agnes Martin—a comforting reminder of a feminist art history.

The paintings were based on appropriated graphic images of women coupled frequently with brief epithets. A contemporary ink drawing of an Edwardian silhouette by a fashion illustrator was titled 32-8-32, 1995, after the subject’s corseted measurements. Taming of the Shrew, 1995, featured a Renaissance-era engraving of a Diana. To these icons, Kahn introduced a lexicon of symbols—the face of a woman, legs, the sole of a foot—from a text on appetite suppression. These appeared repeatedly throughout the paintings, as if checking the assumptions and taboos of the more mainstream ideals.

While Welcome Mat, 1995, a spill of metal pieces shaped like the base of an iron, which resembled perhaps a post-Minimalist sculpture or an Ann Hamilton project, physically punned on the imprisoning power of housework, the paintings relied on a more complex form of presentation; they were built up from a laborious process of copying layers of images on tissue-thin vellum surfaces. In the most successful works, these layers entrapped other subliminal images. In Master Plan, 1995, for example, a pre-Raphaelite lady in a cloak presses up against a man preoccupied with drawing. A nude female torso scribbled onto his tablet, a chain, and the shadowy figure of a woman in a mask screened beneath the entire picture displaced and sexualized the otherwise chaste contact between the artist and his attractive admirer.

Despite the elegance with which Kahn organizes her compositions, her work often seemed limited by its reliance on quotes that are too often cliches (the Gibson Girl is as trite an image as the bikinied cartoons that peek up around her in Portrait of the Artist, 1995) and by a mode of painting that seems inhibited by the mechanical. Of course, this is to some extent inherent in the graphic nature of the source material. However, it seems a pity not to deploy some of paint’s more sensual possibilities during an overall process of translation that is after all concerned with deviating from set types. For a postfeminist form of address, her work scratched at well-worn surfaces. One wants to see more complicated constructs emerge, as begins to happen in Master Plan and Victoria’s Secret, 1995, where the masked woman reappears, this time superimposed with the ghost of another woman; the latter figure holds, mirrorlike, a portrait of a man, whose image reflects either a true love or true ambition. In this pair of works, Kahn effectively managed to wed both her concerns with a history of art by women and her interest in politicizing those, and other, esthetic images.

Ingrid Schaffner