San Francisco

Catherine McCarthy

Over the last decade or so, the term appropriation has become a degraded catchall for the use of any kind of borrowed imagery. Catherine McCarthy’s paintings return the word to its truer meaning: to claim something as one’s own as though by exclusive right. When McCarthy incorporates fragments of old master paintings into compositions suggesting palimpsests, these bits of the past are subsumed into the present, functioning as part of the pieced-together fabric of the artist’s inner life. Drawn and painted layers of image and text include not only turbulent seascapes and Northern Renaissance Madonnas, but also material from ’50s reading primers, delicately rendered illustrations of little girls, advertisements for appliances, boats, and high-heeled shoes, and a profusion of flowers. These touchingly, tenderly, terrifyingly feminine images provide a stream-of-consciousness commentary on how knowledge, acquired through both physical and psychological experience, constructs us.

McCarthy’s paintings rarely offer the eye a place to rest. They seem to call for both seeing and reading, even when text isn’t part of the composition. Rows of women in crinolines and hoopskirts cover the vertical canvas of Garden Party, 1998, like three-letter words. Copied from old engravings in a red the hue of dried blood, the ladies share the acid—green field (more vivid, like a number of the works on view, than has been typical of the artist) with large, startlingly sexy hothouse orchids. Scattered among them are gracefully scripted capital letters, high-heeled shoes, and a self-abasing verse from a girl’s embroidery sampler (“Dear mother I am young . . . Ill strive to learn and be obedient ever”). Arrows drawn between the women suggest a kinship diagram of mothers, daughters, aunts, and cousins. Yet the sexualized flowers, not to mention the stiletto heels—contemporary in vintage, as are scattered drips and hold strokes of color—are a reminder that the conflicting messages of modern life may be no less cumbersome than hoopskirts.

Not all the works on view were so easily decipherable. What makes the disparate imagery cohere is that, rather than seem grafted together, the vocabulary obviously springs from McCarthy’s consciousness. Drawing on her upbringing in a deeply religious Catholic family and her experience of our fin de siècle gender-and-sexuality minefield, the artist transcribes a stream of thoughts and feelings. Her beautiful layers of half-erased, painted-over, embellished images evoke the physical experience of making art as a metaphor for the way we learn over time: through the body, as much as—if not more than—through the mind.

Maria Porges