Los Angeles

Kurt Kauper


Draped from head to toe in a feather-trimmed crimson cloak seemingly intended to raise speculation about what’s underneath, the cheeky figure of Diva Fiction #8, 1999, stands with her hair swept up and her head tilted back. Hands clasped low, she saucily glances at viewers as if trying to catch someone’s eye from across the room. The lone flirt of the group of finely rendered opera divas who occupy Kurt Kauper’s set of four oils, she flaunts what she’s got, though it’s unclear whether she has anything more than attitude to bring to the table. The more decorous figure of Diva Fiction #9, 1999, dons a facade of seriousness and experience—her fingertips pressed together, her expression stoic, her stance as if holding court—but she remains a work in progress, only baby steps away from the novice she recently was. Her ornate, structured gown, with its voluminous skirt, seems built to hold up even if she can’t, and her poker-faced stare suggests a bluff she hopes won’t be called.

Kauper’s canvases are case studies in tenacity, revealing through look, manner, pose, and dress the practiced postures his figures maintain in facing the world and the broad range of attitudes that help them navigate it. The two showstoppers here arc the paintings of elder divas. Diva Fiction #7, 1998, presents a grande dame whose white turban and three strands of pearls vibrate against her dark skin. Her flowing black dress makes no fashion statements yet somehow speaks of elegance and ease. Possessed not by ego but rather by an awareness of the stature she has earned, she sits as if enthroned, awaiting our approach, her hand draped over the chair’s arm, poised and ready for someone to bow and kiss it. Unlike Whistler’s mother, to whom she bears an odd resemblance, she isn’t about to be reduced to servicing the composition but rather commands her pink background, and even a good part of the gallery, as part of her domain. The most intense presence, appearing in Diva Fiction #10, 1999, is the bullnecked figure who stands like a superhero: fists planted on hips, chin held firm, orange helmet of hair seemingly ready for the elements, silvery green gown and cape hanging from her sturdy frame without a wrinkle. Determination incarnate, she appears tempered by battle, but not vanquished. Glamorous she’s not, and she probably has little time or need for small talk, but she appears to have reached a pinnacle—from which no one is about to bump her—through a kind of steely will or integrity.

Kauper’s paintings toy with the idea of portraiture, referencing history painting as well as publicity stills and vanity photos, yet they are distinctly not portraits—they are not about depicting a person, but about describing a sort of posture or attitude. Oddly, portraits often work the other way around: One recognizes the face or catches a name in the title, and then connects a canned character profile to that recognition and credits the painting with conveying a sense of what the sitter is about. With Kauper’s works, the faces carry no recognition, and the titles only reaffirm the impossibility of recognizing a specific sitter by reminding one that the subject was a fiction from the start. Yet in telling viewers that his figures are about something more than familiar names and faces, Kauper’s figurative fabrications well outdo many a portrait. I couldn’t help but wish these paintings were portraits after all, depicting walking, talking, breathing people who might actually embody what Kauper’s cleverly conjured fictions personify. These are some attitudes I’d like to meet.

Christopher Miles