Los Angeles

Kate Costello, Pinch drawing, 2015, fabric appliqué, 54 × 54".

Kate Costello, Pinch drawing, 2015, fabric appliqué, 54 × 54".

Kate Costello

Kate Costello, Pinch drawing, 2015, fabric appliqué, 54 × 54".

Drawing has a directness and immediacy capable of revealing an artist’s thought process and, over time, formal development. It can document aesthetic mutability and demonstrate technical acumen, all the while circumventing the baggage of painting or sculpture. Kate Costello’s recent exhibition—simply titled “Drawing”—which included nine fabric appliqué works; a sculpture in paper, cement, and steel; and an artist’s book, was less concerned with draftsmanship than with the conceptual, linguistic, and symbolic possibilities of drawing. And for an artist well versed in sculpture, video, photography, and painting, the emphasis on medium seemed a significant jumping-off point for a new body of work.

At LAXART, Costello abandoned her typically liberal use of color in favor of black and maroon vinyl sewn onto white canvas grounds. Each of the nine textile works contained a scattering of pictograms or seemingly random emojis in silhouette. Cactus drawing, 2015, for example, encompasses, among other icons, a cactus, a rabbit, some Matisse-like stars, a cartoon eyeball, the word NAH, the number 5, and a chess pawn. Mouths drawing, 2014, depicts six black crudely rendered lips, and OK drawing, 2014—the lone maroon composition in the bunch—depicts a hand making the “OK” sign. These compositions, which combine elements of sign language, graffiti, Pop art, shadow puppets, branding (think of the Comme des Garçons heart with eyes), and graphic design, seemed like overdetermined attempts to communicate some undecipherable language. Installed in a grid on the wall, the works did together evoke a unified visual system, yet one that appeared to be based on naive imaginings rather than a complex vernacular.

The quaintness everywhere apparent in this exhibition was perhaps meant as a challenge to the self-seriousness of so much contemporary art made by men. For an artist who has dealt with gender and the female body in past work, the stylistic move is subtle but loaded, calling into question values of good taste. In contrast to the wryly subversive works that surrounded it, the single sculpture in the show, Leg, 2015—a phallic, cartoonlike, shapely female leg patched together from paper and cement—felt awkwardly out of place, attempting a poetic authority but missing the mark; with its cumbersome, juvenile presence, the sculpture seemed removed from the careful but light-handed symbology of the nine silhouetted textile works.

Like doodles drawn in the margins of a teen’s notebook, Costello’s girlish symbols vaguely recall the “whimsy” of such artists as Ree Morton, Yayoi Kusama, Niki de Saint Phalle, and Dorothy Iannone. And whereas Costello’s stark black fabric works lack the vibrant colors of this earlier generation, her hand-bound artist’s book of 250 pages more than made up for that; each page inside the baby-pink covers contains an abstract drawing rendered in the dynamic palette for which Costello is best known. Displayed in a separate gallery on a desk-like table with chair, the book was meant to be perused in comfortable solitude. This intimacy was the key to the exhibition as a whole; here, the real act of “drawing” is a pulling-out of one’s innermost visions. Costello’s marks seemed to reflect a psyche made material.

Catherine Taft