Caitlin Keogh, Playing a Song, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 72 × 54".

Caitlin Keogh, Playing a Song, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 72 × 54".

Caitlin Keogh

The Approach

Caitlin Keogh, Playing a Song, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 72 × 54".

The charm of the six large paintings in “Alphabets and Daggers,” the first London solo show by the New York–based artist Caitlin Keogh, lay in their enigmatic nature. With their flat forms, bold outlines, and complex color palettes, these thinly painted, Pop-ish acrylic paintings combined motifs drawn from a wide variety of sources—from medieval marginalia and Victorian pottery to William Morris wallpaper and Fritz Kahn infographics—into compositions characterized by a beguiling, dreamlike lucidity. For instance, the mottled green ground of A Name is a Ribbon (all works 2018) morphed into a latticelike weave of seven arms with hands holding paintbrushes. Black outlines define the hands and arms, while the small breaks in the weave reveal a deep-yellow space beneath. Are the hands Keogh’s, painting the work we now see? Does each represent a different moment in her process? Likewise, the three cut flowers that also punctuate the composition could be the same one at different moments.

Seeing and interpreting these images can feel like trying to solve a puzzle, but Keogh’s intertwining of figure and ground à la M. C. Escher allows for no settled solution. Keogh constructs her paintings via gridded-up drawings, and her pencil lines were still visible in places. The grid itself offers another layer of construction. However, a more subtle playfulness occurred in Alphabet and Daggers, which builds a pattern around the upper- and lowercase letters from a to z. The fifty-two red-and-white characters appear, evenly spaced, over a field of yellow-and-lilac cubes. However, the red of the letters suggests a space beneath, breaking the spatial illusion of the cubes, just as the weave of hands in A Name is a Ribbon shatters one spatial illusion while creating another. And then there are the daggers and their shadows. The tumbling knives float in front of the letters, while their shadows fall behind them. The result is like a game of snakes and ladders in which our eyes move up and down but also in and out of the picture plane.

Keogh’s enigmas are not just purely visual. The paintings also weave intellectual webs out of various references from the history of art and design. She drew the bagpipe-playing monkey in Playing a Song from an illuminated manuscript, while in The Cat, she has turned a design based on bird bones into a lattice that looked to have been appropriated from a William Morris wallpaper. But it was not. The English designer was, however, the source for the flowers in A Name is a Ribbon. While Keough based some of her earlier work on images of the female body, in these works, floral and decorative elements implied historical notions of the feminine rather than the body itself.

Although Keogh’s references come from the past, the resulting symphony of these rich paintings was entirely contemporary, most of all in the surreal and funny Playing a Song, where punctuation marks—commas, question marks, exclamation points—rendered like 3-D computer graphics surround a primate musician and a large schematic flower. Are these marks supposed to be the notation of the sounds coming out of the animal’s instrument? Keogh has spoken of how pictures can be instructions on how to see something. We have a lot of information today, these paintings seemed to say, but a complete picture is yet to form.