New York

Jeannette Christensen/ Catherine Howe/ Robin Kahn

Bill Maynes Gallery

The three artists in this thoughtfully selected show differ not only in their choice of medium but, more important, in their stylistic and affective stances. What unites them is that, in reflecting on questions about their relation as women to art and its history, they’re more involved in exploring the emotional charge around those issues than in pronouncing judgments on existing images.

Jeannette Christensen, from Oslo, shows “The Passing of Time,” 1995–98, a series of Polaroids whose compositions are based on the paintings of Vermeer, but with a male in modern garb substituted for the Dutch artist’s women. The light in these photographs is lovely—fine enough, even, for the invocation of Vermeer to be credible—and it keeps the imagery from settling into a simple reversal of the male artist’s view of women. Instead the work becomes a meditation on qualities of whiteness: white light, white paper, white milk, white tablecloth, white shirt, and (not least of all) white man, whose pallor is heightened by the strong illumination—through which Vermeer’s emotional restraint gets translated into a simpler but still somehow touching sense of emotional blankness.

In contrast to the pensive sobriety of Christensen’s photographs, Robin Kahn’s Headress sculptures (all 1998) are witty and playful. You might almost take them for a bizarre flea market find: a set of five glazed ceramic flowerpots, identical in form but differently colored, all in the shape of the same cartoonlike female head (said to resemble the artist’s mother, who must in that case be the prototypical ’50s housewife). The orchids that emerge from each pot are, I guess, like the thoughts that blossom from this woman’s brain. One vase sports, rather than the solid colors of the others, the names of well-known women artists, from Beatrice Wood through Yayoi Kusama to Ann Hamilton—and, whaddaya know, Robin Kahn too. Of course, there’s an excuse: It’s just the artist’s signature, but it’s an amusingly self-deprecating joke about the intersection of sisterhood and ego. Kahn also showed some Hannah Höch–style collages, more aggressive in tone but also more familiar than the sculpture.

Best and strangest of all are some modestly scaled new paintings by Catherine Howe (all 1999). Their sources are not only in Symbolist and Pre-Raphaelite painting but also in the watered-down versions of those modes that were prevalent in graphic art, especially children’s book illustration, well into the first half of this century. For example, there are echoes of the imagery of Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies books, published in the ’20s and still in print today, in a painting like Howe’s Blue Iris. These echoes are just as apparent as Christensen’s Vermeer or Kahn’s ’50s design, yet also more thoroughly transformed. There is a dreamlike intensity to these images of female fairies or spirits that has not been in Howe’s painting before, a sense that she has somehow overcome the strong sense of irony present in her earlier depictions of clowns, artist’s models, and society girls. Formally, the most distinctive new feature is that the single female figure is no longer a projection onto an abstract or undefined ground but is now part of a fully realized scene. Dwelling on the recollection of that unappeasable childhood longing for other worlds than the straightforwardly human, the paintings manage to contain or embody nostalgia without themselves being nostalgic.

Barry Schwabsky