San Francisco

Nina Katchadourian, Lavatory Self-Portrait in the Flemish Style #3, 2011, framed color photograph, 15 3/4 x 13 3/8".

Nina Katchadourian, Lavatory Self-Portrait in the Flemish Style #3, 2011, framed color photograph, 15 3/4 x 13 3/8".

Nina Katchadourian

Nina Katchadourian, Lavatory Self-Portrait in the Flemish Style #3, 2011, framed color photograph, 15 3/4 x 13 3/8".

Claustrophobic and rank, suffused with a clinical fluorescence that does nobody’s mirror reflection any favors: Few places rival the airplane bathroom for inhospitality. Most of us minimize our time there, or avoid it altogether; not so Nina Katchadourian, who has been lingering in skyborne commodes for the past two years—annexing them, along with tray tables, as makeshift studios, and calling herself and fellow passengers into service as models. “Seat Assignment,” 2010–, selections from which comprised her fifth solo show at Catharine Clark Gallery, includes hundreds of photographs, digital images, and videos made entirely in flight, using only materials readily available (a cellphone camera, SkyMall catalogues, freebie nuts).

This is a tidy conceptual premise, and—if one overlooks its implicit testament to an eroding distinction between work and leisure time, or even between work and going-to-work time (Katchadourian was usually en route to install an exhibition or give a lecture)—an appealing one, with often very funny results. In each of the nineteen “Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style,” 2011, that constituted this show’s keynote, the artist styles herself as a fifteenth-century aristocrat or supplicant, subbing paper towels for lace collars and conjuring an early Netherlandish headdress out of an inflatable neck pillow. For all its profane absurdity—toilet-seat covers recur as props—the series stops short of burlesque. Washed-out pixels have trumped oil, yes, but her stern, solemn mien and pious hand gestures (all set against a black scarf or orange travel blanket, summoning the rich backdrops of van Eyck or Campin) are oddly affecting. Certain canny presentational decisions, such as enclosing these petite portraits in burnished frames and mounting them on the crimson walls one might associate with the Met, rounded out the Renaissance look—while Acca Dacca Diptych, 2011, a video of Katchadourian lip-synching AC/DC songs, installed nearby, shored up the works’ atemporal shtick.

If this means-at-hand MO is a recent turn in her practice, “Seat Assignment” continues its thematic of translation or transposition via the incongruity theory of humor; previous efforts have involved birdsong substituted for car alarms, books arranged so that mininarratives emerge from the adjacencies of the titles on their spines, and a popcorn machine’s clatter interpreted as Morse code. Here, images of transmogrifications engineered on board—the piling of pretzel crumbs atop a magazine photograph of a bridge to suggest a landslide, for example, or the configuring of the folds of a black sweater to resemble the face of a gorilla—were presented successively in Flight Log, 2010–, a ten-minute, slide-show-like video whose very format underscores Katchadourian’s approach of linking sounds, representations, and objects to others along a continuum that runs from seamless to awkwardly disjunctive. As a formal strategy, this can come off as flat-footed, hazarding an accumulation of one-liners (any two things can be connected in some manner, after all); yet considered from the angle of reception, it’s clever, perhaps even generous. We laugh at a photograph of a bird anthropomorphized by way of Tic Tacs and cashews (several Birds of New Zealand, 2011, were on view) because we’re hardwired to discern—and project—kinship and systems; because we have, to quote a formulation of the artist’s that is no less accurate for its ingeniousness, a “deep desire for things to mean something.”

Katchadourian started “Seat Assignment” in an improvisatory way, but her categorizing inclinations have begun to yield a few distinct subsets of the project now, the product of more than seventy flights and counting. For “Sleepers,” 2011, each picture was taken sidelong and on the sly, to show the person sitting next to her in the moment after he or she had fallen asleep. The series is less compelling for its voyeuristic charge (as were Walker Evans’s photos of subway snoozers) than its taxonomic one—how similarly cramped, uncomfortable, and/or narcotized everyone looks. Best are the exceptions, those occasional snapshots of placidly dozing travelers, that distill that rarest of airborne states: peace.

Lisa Turvey