Kate Bright

Emily Tsingou Gallery

EVER SINCE MODERNISM taught us the apparently unbreakable habit of reading works of art self-referentially, illusionism no longer concerns what a painting shows, only what it is. For instance, the work of a number of painters (Karen Kilimnik is a key referent: point; Rob Pruitt has also been availing himself of one of the signature material of this show, glitter) gives the illusion of being amateur, obsessive, or simply tacky and decorative. Painting has to perform its own appearance, and just as performance art tends to focus on bodily suffering, contemporary painting registers an incurable fascination with the degradation and abjection of the picture, its demotion from the realm of high art.

And yet the fact remains that, just as a classical painting could manifest its power only through some deviation from pure illusion, a contemporary painting can only do so through some break, however minimal, from the illusion of the subartistic. Bad painting only works if it's good—and not just faux-naïf. That's where Kate Bright's large-scale landscapes stand out. At their best they show perfect tact in understating their pictorial intelligence without undue coyness. Three of the paintings in her second one-person show were of snowy Alps with impossibly blue skies behind them-blown-up souvenir postcards of a stereotypical sublimity. A scene like the one in Snowy, 2000, has been reduced to pure coding: The mountain itself is shown in brittle black and white, without shading or inflection beyond the craftsy, unearned effulgence of the glitter that represents the snow. A blunt, dead blue fills in for the background. And yet the rendering of the topography of the mountainside is not as generic as it seems but rather oddly meticulous. The work's amalgam of intricacy and generalization is surprisingly effective in creating a sense of encompassing scale. You could almost lose yourself in this place, for all your awareness of the flimsy artifice. Could it be that this painting is not about the sublime becoming kitsch but instead constitutes an effort to reclaim from kitsch the sublime that's embedded there?

Any doubts that this is Bright's project are resolved by two scenes of dappled surfaces of water, Black Ripple and Warsaw Water, both 2001, which accompany the mountain works. Horizonless, they have a kind of alloverness reminiscent of some of Alex Katz's landscapes. And a similar glamour, too: that of nature as seen through the lens of urbanity. The surface (of the water, of the painting—they are constantly exchanging values but are never quite equivalent) wants to turn into something like pure pattern, yet as much as the image threatens to dissolve or flatten out, the semblance of water shimmering and trembling never fails to reemerge. Again the synthetic brightness of glitter spreads across the image like sugar, but more important are the countervailing depths, the nocturnal severity of the black that underlies the scene and becomes seductively threatening as one looks deeper and deeper into it, just where one thought there was no depth to be found.

Barry Schwabsky