New York

Kathe Burkhart, Mindfuck: from the Liz Taylor Series (The VIPs), 1988, acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 82 x 96".

Kathe Burkhart, Mindfuck: from the Liz Taylor Series (The VIPs), 1988, acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 82 x 96".

Kathe Burkhart

Mary Boone Gallery | Chelsea

Kathe Burkhart, Mindfuck: from the Liz Taylor Series (The VIPs), 1988, acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 82 x 96".

Elizabeth Taylor’s penis dangles beneath her coattails in Cunt: from the Liz Taylor Series (Raintree County), 2010, one of eight bold, brassy paintings selected by curator Piper Marshall and exhibited from Kathe Burkhart’s ongoing, decades-long series devoted to the superstar. The painting’s profane title is emblazoned across the top in red letters, polarizing the male member between Liz’s legs. Between the cock and cunt, an impertinent, flatly painted Taylor stands against a brick wall with her hands on her hips, her famous violet eyes gazing disaffectedly beyond the picture’s surface.

Burkhart has been painting Taylor since 1982, laying saucy, often expletive-filled phrases over tweaked film stills and publicity photographs. Rooted in the intertwined tendencies of brash, good-bad painting and Pictures appropriation, the “Liz Taylor Series” is also a sustained self-portraiture practice, with Taylor, the consummate sex symbol and ultimate survivor of her passions, cast as the artist’s surrogate. The flamboyantly heterosexual, eight-times-married Taylor embodied feminine iconicity to the point of camp excess. Burkhart accelerates Liz’s contradictions, painting her—in the artist’s words—as “the perfect sexual rebel and the perfect victim.”

In Mindfuck: from the Liz Taylor Series (The VIPs), 1988, Liz is again pictured with a Dick, this time her two-time husband and eleven-time costar Richard Burton. Adapted from a still from the 1963 drama The V.I.P.s, the painting shows Burton forcing Taylor’s hand against a shattered mirror, augmented with shards of broken glass applied to the painting’s surface. The mirror doubles Taylor’s legendary face, here contorted in an agonized grimace. Arrested in time, what was an ambiguous “accident” in the film becomes a tableau of spousal abuse. Under Burkhart’s brush, the debonair Burton is transfigured into a salmon-skinned villain in a business suit, a standard-issue cipher of avarice and aggression cut from Trump Collection cloth. Yet even as he embodies reptilian menace, Burton is a stilted, somewhat collateral presence in the painting. The real mindfuck is between Liz and her reflected image, pressed against each other in a codependent, autoerotic pas de deux.

“At its inception, I wanted to make personal work representing feminist identity that would be accessible to a broad audience,” Burkhart said of the “Liz Taylor Series,” which currently numbers around two hundred works. “Coming out of the punk subculture, the work combined a rigorous deconstructive critique with a political reclamation of the empty trope of Pop, without sacrificing visual pleasure.” The tumultuous relationship between pleasure and critique is perhaps the central problem of the series, and perhaps no other celebrity, past or present, vivifies the pleasure principle more than Taylor, a woman of legendary appetites (for diamonds, husbands, booze, food, and fame) once condemned by the Vatican for “erotic vagrancy.” Burkhart’s series has outlived the woman to whom it is devoted. Today the paintings look like canny divinations of meme culture, with their irreverent combinations of popular images and pithy captions inevitably inviting comparison to the image macros that flare up and fizzle out across multiple screenspaces. “Cameras in phones,” Burkhart has acknowledged, “. . . make everybody think they’re artists. The notions of performativity and self-reflexiveness that were so important to artists have entered daily life in a strange way.” What pressures does this place on Burkhart’s “Liz Taylor” paintings, with all their sass, brass, and pop pleasure? “Don’t they lose something of their critical distance in an era of instant detournement and hashtag-appended feminism?” the pedant in me worries. One Liz lands an immediate comeback in big red letters: “FUCK OFF!”

Chloe Wyma