Karin Davie

Turner & Runyon

Karin Davie’s work from earlier in this decade includes stripe paintings that goof on formalist rectilinear geometry with self-consciously feminizing Op-art bumps and bulges. Her series of 1993 “Odalisques” on parallelogram stretchers resemble brushy, pastel Bridget Riley paintings; the trapezoidal “Skirts” works have vertical bands that appear to swell like a pregnant belly. Davie’s body of work doesn’t exactly illustrate Dave Hickey’s essay “Prom Night in Flatland,” but it clearly illuminates some of his ideas about the masculinized discourse of Modernist pictorial space.

While Davie’s previous work made use of bent color bands to produce an overall surface pattern, the “Action Paintings” she showed last fall generate a limited sense of depth by means of an attenuated figure-ground relationship. The compositions feature big, horizontally oriented squiggles on fields of color. Often the ribbonlike shapes are a glossy red in a complementary relationship to a freely brushed blue ground; as the reds drift to the warm end of the spectrum, the blues settle toward a vaguely greenish cast. Elsewhere her blues cool as the red deepens. In one untitled piece, the color scheme reverses, and she lays intense blue bands over a surface that varies from pink to ocher to salmon. The variations in the ground colors suggest a spatial recession, an atmospheric quality that excavates a space in the paintings’ surfaces and pushes the more consistent hues of the squiggle forms forward. At the same time, her allover compositions and various drips and runs from the putative background that mark the ribbons tend to compress the pictorial space back into a fairly shallow field.

Davie’s marks on these paintings are wildly improvisatory and agitated, her colors aggressively high-key. Eye-aching artificial pigments like napthol and phthalocyanine are common, and even when she opts for “natural” colors like cadmium and cobalt, they are applied with unrelieved intensity. Yet there is an almost Rococo insouciance to these loud paintings. They broadly suggest a calm post—Pop sensibility in the cool shine of their surfaces, their slick wiseguy varnish. Wisegal, rather.

Having begun her “Action Paintings” around the time of de Kooning’s death, Davie quotes both his late brushmark paintings and Pollock’s compositional techniques. Reportedly she set up a fun-house mirror in her studio while she worked on this series, which suggests a sly nod in the direction of André Kertész’s 1930s “Distortions” photographs with models in parabolic mirrors. Davie’s undulating squiggles mimic Kertész’s anamorphic female nudes, which the photographer undertook for a French men’s magazine. For all their formal sophistication, the deeper appeal of these paintings lies in their wit. Davie engages loaded art-historical issues with generous humor and without a trace of rancor.

Michael Odom