Kathe Burkhart

The world has changed a lot since American artist Kathe Burkhart began her “Liz Taylor” series, 1982–. But the language Burkhart uses hasn’t changed one bit, as one could see in “Women and Children First,” a selection of her paintings, drawings, and photographs. In fact, the oldest work there, Eikel (Conspirator), 1994, is stylistically interchangeable with a more recent painting, Blueballs (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), 2007. It may seem strange that in more than twenty-five years there has been no stylistic evolution—and that this constancy seems to be a defining quality of the artist’s work. Indeed, even if you only read Burkhart’s in-your-face words like SHIT HAPPENS, UP YOUR ASS, or TOUGH TITTY, painted like slogans across images appropriated from the canon of Taylor’s films, what’s striking is the consistency of this never-ending work in progress (the artist regards her output for the series so far as just the first twenty-five years). Beyond that there is Burkhart’s clumsy, even provocatively ugly way of painting. Yet more than a body of paintings, what Burkhart has invented is a visual language with which to attack, from a feminist perspective, all kinds of misogynist stereotypes. She has deployed an aggressive humor that has been omnipresent in her work from the beginning. Take, for instance, the painting that was given pride of place in this show, Suck My Dick (Candid Shot), 2003. Here was another Liz Taylor painting, this time showing the actress, arms bent behind her head, seemingly inviting the viewer to do as the title suggested: An oversize dildo was attached to the canvas, along with rejection letters from galleries, publishers, and literary agents all over the world (Burkhart has also written novels and poetry). Although there is a childish, even stupid sense of humor in Burkhart’s gesture, she gets away with it. By publicly showing these rejection letters with their polite but often hypocritical reasons for turning down her uncompromisingly feminist work, Burkhart has the last laugh.

Another highlight consisted of a work called Smeerlap (Reflections in a Golden Eye), 2001, with the Dutch word for asshole superimposed on an image taken from a still from the John Huston film Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967). Here Burkhart’s alter ego turns her head away from the man who is undressing her. Adding the word “smeerlap” turns this love scene into something violent and aggressive. And Burkhart’s literary bent was exemplified in this show by several “Chocolate Haikus,” 2001–, their texts embodied in six-inch Dutch chocolate letters, and in Puzzle Haiku (Fundamentalists), 2001, made with children’s foam puzzle mats. Truisms like NO SEX IS THE NEW SEX OR FUNDAMENTALISTS / IN SEARCH OF ETERNITY / ARE THE NEW ROCK STARS could be lyrics from an engaged post-punk singer. Ultimately, one has to admire the consistent political attitude this artist has maintained. For more than two decades, her iconoclastic works have been relentlessly scratching away the varnish from our shiny world, and the oeuvre of this self-proclaimed “Loud-Mouthed Bitch” is timelier than ever.

Jos Van den Bergh