New York

Kathe Burkhart

Mitchell Algus Gallery/Schroeder Romero

Every cultural movement spawns its own lingo, some of which inevitably becomes vestigial and embarrassing, and feminist art is certainly no exception. About “femmage,” the less said the better, but the term “bad girls” bears examination. Title of several mid-’90s shows and irritant to many critics, the expression is often associated with Kathe Burkhart, who is credited with launching it into wide circulation in a 1990 Flash Art interview. Referring to the subject of her “Liz Taylor Series” (1982–), Burkhart said, “She is a representative of the ‘bad dark-girl’ rather than the ‘blond good girl.’ ”

Burkhart never called herself a bad girl, but at some point during the next few years that distinction was elided—a slippage that correlates with a curious logic then in play, which seemed to dictate that the more postfeminist strategies looked like prepolitical acting out, the more they would be institutionally embraced (e.g. Tracey Emin). Burkhart’s own work, which includes painting, video, performance, and fiction, sometimes trades in the poetics of the disorganized personality but always appears in full command of its faculties.

This tension is in full effect in the “Liz Taylor” paintings, some of which were recently on view at Mitchell Algus Gallery. Burkhart started the series as a student at CalArts, combining neo-Conceptual appropriation with the profane importunities of punk and the leering humor of Pop art’s more lascivious side. Flat, garish, and emblazoned with expletives in English and Dutch, the paintings at Mitchell Algus (dated from 1984 to 1994, with the exception of one from 1999) are based mostly on production stills, publicity shots, and tabloid paparazzi photos. They feature Liz at all ages and in a variety of ridiculous period costumes, looking by turns glamorous and slatternly, as is her wont. She stares cluelessly into space while about to be garroted, gets tied up, eats shit (literally), and is slammed against a wall, while words like SLIT are superimposed upon her person.

Burkhart adds insult to these injuries with her rebarbative color combinations (bright orange and deep turquoise, for example) and her use of tacky materials like wood-grain contact paper and marbleized mirrored glass, while her literal, illustrative line duly registers the actress’s wrinkles and dewlaps. But just as she does in real life, Liz manages to continuously exude the oblivious narcissism that the camera adores and that acts as a kind of psychic Kevlar. She is both gross and seductive, preposterous and admirable, smart and stupid, as are the paintings—an ambivalence that seems to be the point.

In an exhibition that ran concurrently with the one at Mitchell Algus, Burkhart showed selections from her “Torture Paintings” series (1992–2001) at Schroeder Romero. Here, instruments of torture and execution—old European dunking stools and brands, and good old American lethal-injection beds—are precisely rendered in acrylic paint and set against backgrounds of pink and blue Regency stripes, burlap, or orange feathers pasted into thick black gesso to suggest tarring and feathering.

Burkhart has said that she does not think of herself as a painter; in the “Torture Paintings” she compensates for her rejection of painterly sophistication by keying a limited number of elements—text, collage, rudimentary pattern, blocks of uniform color—to their highest pitch. The paintings are displayed in ornate frames, each with a plaque that bears the name of one of the artist’s ex-boyfriends, thus making the s/m undertones overt. They do seem a bit dated—well, OK, they seem so ’90s—but they also raise the possibility that the transgressive baby may have been thrown out with the bathwater. As with the “Liz Taylor” paintings, their blunt directness feels extremely bracing in an art world currently low on badasses of either gender.

Elizabeth Schambelan