Essays & Reviews

Nerve Endings

I have lived with Katharine Kuharic’s work for over 20 years. My first acquisition, in 1984, combines a bowl of fruit appropriated from Caravaggio and a “God-breaks-through-the-clouds-in-beams-of-light” landscape. The still life, made important only by its gorgeous incarnation in paint, contradicts an idealized landscape whose aspiration for the divine is rendered ridiculous through obvious “painterly” overreaching.

Years later, Kuharic’s work evolves into still more complex layers of contrast and contradiction. Mister Rogers, a 1996 psychedelic cocktail of form and color demands that you string together a series of icons. Mr. Bojangles and Maria Callas compete for your attention. A jester and a debutante tempt you. A dominatrix and a child vie for your affections. A shapely girl seduces you in with her dreamy skin—and simultaneously horrifies you to the quick by revealing the all-too-mortal workings of blood and bone.

As with all of Kuharic’s work, you have entered an all-out-fight-to-the-finish. But how does it end? Kuharic will not tip her hand: supremacy teeters unsettlingly between happiness and despair, love and death, safety and risk. There is balance. And it is horrible. Lips both kiss and bite. Hands both caress and hit. Bodies yearn and open and rot and reveal. Love becomes sex becomes death. Strength becomes authority becomes abuse. What attracts repels. What inspires also ridicules and condemns. Everything you long for may, in the end, result in the bare skull of nothingness. It is just as possible that it will bring you the tender companionship of a circle of sisterly novitiates, or, if you are very lucky, the bare-chested frankness of girls just wanting to have fun. As in life, however, you will not know until you know.

Kuharic will not do the viewer’s work. It is our job to string the ideas into a structure. Or, as happens in String of Pearls, 1993, to let them devolve from perfect jewels into pearly globules of fat, and then into drops of seawater, and then back to the mother-sea itself. We must decide where, in the endlessly interrelated change strung between life decay, culture and trash, love and rejection, skill and ineptitude, we will begin the struggle to reach our own conclusions.

One of the exhilarating elements of the struggle is the paint itself. You may become so entranced by the web of images that you forget to look at the paint. Look again. The frightening, essential tug of war depicted in the paintings also takes place in the paint. A simple leaf of pant leg or rifle is shattered into frayed nerve endings of pure color. Even at the micro-level, the paintings are breathing and moving and fighting. Living worlds spinning under their own set of rules.

Look again at the paint. Look again at the paintings. You will become involved in their worlds. Their rules will become clearer. With every glance, however, your place on the way from sex to death or temptation to nothingness changes. Be brave. Keep looking.

— Keith Recker