New York

Katy Moran

Andrea Rosen Gallery

Katy Moran’s solo debut at Andrea Rosen Gallery proved as “riveting” as the press release trumpeted, despite the fact that nobody could quite agree on what her abstract paintings are about, where they come from, or what they finally depict. Brushed and smeared in a romantic palette of muted olives and ochres, supported by fleshy peach or flecked with vital red, and relieved by occasional daubs of turquoise and crisp neutrals, Moran’s diminutive, domestic-size canvases can read as landscapes, seascapes, portraits, or anything but. Indeed, they seemingly bait critical appraisal while embarrassing easy circumscription, bringing to mind nothing so much as Henry James’s “The Figure in the Carpet” (1896) and its thematization of hermeneutics. Variously described as something that critics missed, a secret, a trick, and, most famously, “a complex figure in a Persian carpet,” the enigmatic import of protagonist Hugh Vereker’s own novel structures James’s narrative. The story’s meaning thereby deferred and ultimately refused, it becomes a highbrow caper in which what is pursued is none other than signification itself.

In a similar manner, Moran’s scumbled, nervy compositions suggest potential referentiality without making a “complex figure” patent. For though Moran culls her source images from the Internet, design magazines, snapshots, and elsewhere, she also inverts them and, with great gusto, pushes them into messes of pigment whose lush materiality plays against the potentially legible details that uncannily emerge. Moran actually considers a painting finished only when she can recognize some figurative element in the colors and shapes therein; they remain oddly intimate for reasons that are elusive. Coy titles aid in this process: Nature Boy, 2007; Smoker’s Junction, 2007; Wasabi without Tears, 2007; Shycat, 2008, and Lenny K, 2008. So, too, of course, do the works themselves, as Moran’s blurred canvases hiccup signs, whether a watery vista enveloped in atmospheric haze in Lucas, 2007, or the plume of purple, brown, cranberry, putty, and emerald feathers in Pecking Order, 2008. Most paintings here evince some such hook and resonate across the installation. Wasabi without Tears, for one, assumes the look of a conflagration, as Wilma, 2008, picks up the wasabi as its background shade.

Some works employ empty centers or, conversely, allow dense accumulations to hover there. Volestere, 2007, looks like a violent fracas with a circular vortex, as much Road Runner cartoon as Dutch genre scene, although it cannot help but be redolent of Gustave Courbet’s yawning Ornans grave as well. Equally macabre, Hooper’s Retreat, 2008, struck me as indebted to Géricault’s morgue studies: rotting flesh as still life. Likewise, gestural passages in Big Wow, 2007—all custards and browns in spikes above comparatively languid washes— admit a New York School pedigree, while Meeting in Love, 2007, improbably channels Turner’s frothy seascapes through chalky strokes arcing toward a high horizon, rendering them appropriately sinister. By contrast, Lucas is wraithlike, a jumble of blues and other colors in an airy expanse of white, connoting nothing so much as an idyll. Like so many of these works, it appears as a detail from some other setting, cleaved, decontextualized, and resized, perhaps bearing down on an unknown Impressionist’s facture—another instance of an elaborate staging of disambiguated “secrets” that might be unearthed as the phantom of style.

Suzanne Hudson