Kristin Calabrese

Gagosian Gallery

Looking at Kristin Calabrese’s 1998 painting Stove & Fridge (Love), I couldn’t help but focus on the houseplant, which shares space with the dustpan, broom, and mop, as well as the fridge-mounted valentine, snapshots, and fortune-cookie slips. It reminded me of the scene in the 1987 film Wall Street where Bud Fox, a working-class boy with big dreams, stands in the living room of a corporate raider/art collector and gets read like a tea leaf by Darien, a socialite decorator who describes Bud in terms of the type of living space that includes a houseplant. Calabrese’s paintings cover a range of topics like love, loss, dysfunction, and memory, but each of these seems to be a numerator over the common denominator of class.

The Entryway, 1997, presents the electric fan, taped-up Polaroids, and shag carpeting of an apartment that could play host to the Spanish-style swag lamp depicted in Chandelier (Hope), 1998. Two people that live in the same room and don’t talk to each other, 1999, documents a mismatched couch and recliner amid wood-grain paneling and (more) shag carpeting, a doll and sweater the only indication of the people who come and go, while Spilled Milk, 1999, shows a table with no chairs in a seemingly abandoned kitchen. The evidence of recent inhabitants is limited to yellow daisies in a vase and assorted scribbles on the tabletop. All of Calabrese’s spaces seem like parts of the same kind of place––or even of the same place. Among the more subtle yet telling works is Doorway (24), 1998, which perhaps most aptly defines this place. An interior that shows a small abstract painting hanging beside a slightly ajar apartment door, behind which a steel security door is visible, Doorway (24) evokes the awkward interface of class and culture.

In some cases, the realism that gels from across the room breaks down when the viewer engages the painting with the intimacy it entreats, and here and there the perspective seems just a bit off, not by design but by default. When Calabrese’s paintings fall short in their making, though, they still tend to succeed in delivering a genuine pathos. Her subject matter is tricky, as missteps could put her in the position of being the brunt of her own irony, the pawn of slumming, or the easily co-opted adversary. (There! Take that and hang it in your gallery!) Calabrese, however, falls in with a handful of emerging artists who introduce in a frank, simple manner material that has previously been romanticized, exoticized, or tokenized. The tone of her work is earnest and undeniably charged with emotion, but the real power of these paintings is what they propose: that painting can genuinely engage viewers with very unromantic images about being young and broke. Calabrese sidesteps the potential disconnect between content and context with a confidence that this subject matter is as reasonable a basis for artistic narrative as any other. (Here. Why not hang this in your gallery?)

Christopher Miles