Essays & Reviews

Payback Of Painting Can Be A Beautiful Thing

Katharine Kuharic’s paintings are as triumphant as paintings come these days; each one presents itself as a consummate victory, unapologetic even (or especially) when at its most vulnerable. This is why it made sense to me that in the case of one particular canvas, the spellbinding Ladue News, Kuharic didn’t start with her meticulous portraits of people and consumables, but rather with drawings of bullet holes in plate glass that she made on site. Her paintings are bulletproof in form and content, making her only the second contemporary painter whose work has ever made me thing such a strange thing, the first being Lari Pittman. Kuharic and Pittman share an interest in the power of popular culture and its complex relationship to their respective identities, especially in political and sexual terms, but it could be argued that while Pittman deliberately keeps everything at arm’s length to play with and then tame it ‘over there,’ Kuharic brings all of it as close as possible in order to keep it on her side. Reversing the powerful course of pop art with what looks like—at least in the final picture—absolute calm, Kuharic’s paintings use their composure to intensify their intimacy, a closeness that for so many surface reasons really should not be possible, but somehow, like magic, she’s done it.

Starting with images from flyers, circulars, newspapers, and magazines that she calls “unsolicited images” because they are sent to her and the rest of us whether we want them or not, Kuharic embarks upon a process of transformation that involves cutting, collaging, drawing, re-collaging, and finally, re-drawing when each images is initially transferred onto the canvas (both freehand and traced) so that the painting can begin. It should come as no surprise, however, that the painting involves several steps of its own, starting with under painting and slowly, ever so slowly bringing the work into a state of what can only be called “being.” It is this tangible quality of a living, breathing resistance that is the most remarkable thing about Kuharic’s paintings, presentations of a materially grounded presence made all the more poignant by the fleeting nature of their pictorial source material infused with the workaday underpinnings of much of her subject matter.

Take, for example, Pound of Flesh. Organized as a kind of timeline of Kuharic’s life with a line of yellow egg shapes (each representing a year) running across the bottom edge of the painting, the painting combines hollyhocks and songbirds with the labels from Weight Watchers “Smart Ones” frozen dinners and the repeated text of the title recast as a sunrise or sunset (given the fantastic enchantment of the painting, it’s most likely both at once). Even if we didn’t learnt that the red dots on the painting correspond to Kuharic’s shifting weight (she calls them balloons), the painted integration of the lush bounty and the processed food anchors a clear point of view about the price that can be paid in today’s consumer culture, a position sustained in the end by the painting being itself a material heavyweight. Kuharic is even capable of producing significant mass in her watercolors: for example, in both 4 lbs or More and III, as well as Farm Fresh Produce, Odgen, the bounty of flowers, fruits, and vegetables, and various meats and sandwiches (not to mention cans of dog food), is highly organized into three bands, setting up not only an aesthetic hierarchy (of beauty and/or desire?) but also a cutting commentary on value. Again, repetition is key as the plant/flower forms connect formally into slices of watermelon on their way to wonderfully perverse pinwheel re-representations of ground beef, reminding me, at least, that De Kooning was dead right when he claimed that “flesh was the reason oil paint was invented,” even if we are, in these works, looking at (damn tough) watercolors.

Farm Fresh Produce, Ogden also includes one of her signature portraits of a bulldog that at this point could easily be interpreted as a stand-in for the artist herself, stubbornly guarding what I see as a territory of resistance that Kuharic works very hard to maintain in her paintings. It’s no accident that the bulldog is not tempted in the least by the meaty glut in his midst; rather he or she looks out from the picture, tongue aimed at us. I think it’s important to keep the dog in mind as we take in all of the people who also look out at us in several of Kuharic’s most complicated paintings to date. Returning to Ladue News, mentioned above, and acknowledging that Kuharic found the portraits in a St. Louis society magazine with the same title, it’s impossible not to register their collective expression of community at direct odds with the ramshackle structure they are ascending towards a wicket anal-like mandala in the sky, made up of bottles of dish detergent, salad dressing, etc., etc., ad nauseum, and culminating with a sphincter of home town beer cans. In many ways, Martha Steward Living is its companion, as the corporate consumer titan herself is caught on the right calmly walking out of the picture, perfect fall wreath in hand, leaving behind not only devastation but a “Boneless” tornado/hole in the sky. It’s crucial to recognize that Kuharic’s visual/verbal constructions are so much more than great dirty jokes (which they are) that only contribute to a knowable “explanation” of the painting as a kind of text or scene from a film. Instead they are devices that are enacted in the end by the way of which they have been examined up close and personal and then deliberately, forcefully ‘painted.’ Pulled apart and put back together again and again and again until the final result has built up over essential time, Kuharic’s paintings are potent demonstrations of the beautiful payback that paintings can still provide—and then some—for the maker for the rest of us.

—Terry R. Myers