Essays & Reviews

Hyperbolic Realism

Katharine Kuharic’s paintings are filled with objects.  Here’s a list: one can of Campbell’s mushroom soup, one jar of Ragu spaghetti sauce, Susie from the St. Louis Knights of Columbus, the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes in white pant less tuxedo drag, a Hoover c780 vacuum cleaner.  The list is long but very specific.  Everything in a Kuharic painting is emphatically specific, described in detail by her high-resolution mark making.  Kuharic’s depiction-labors are devotional; they declare, by the evidence of time and effort, that each object matters.  She invites us to have feelings for the hyper-specificity of her objects while also demonstrating that they are not isolated singularities.

Kuharic’s objects are deeply embedded in a system of meaning, placed into image-sentences with socially charged content.  Bill Brown, in his book A Sense of Things, says that “Thingness is precipitated as a kind of misuse value.”  He points out that we have a heightened sense of things when they are momentarily out of context.  He uses the example of a knife used as a screwdriver but one could equally refer to Kuharic’s pie-flower in Super Bowl Sunday, 2003, with its fourteen blossoms of unmatched women’s shoes.  Kuharic is a flagrant misuser, a visionary misuser. 

Here’s another list of symbolically retooled objects from the painting Backwards Flag, 1998:  two cushioned chairs with floral upholstery, a young smiling lesbian of a recent type, a backwards, flag, a dolphin sticker and a Snoopy sticker stuck to an unsmiling female miner’s hardhat.  Kuharic’s amped-up pictures derive from photographs.  Collabe is used as a source and method of organization but her renderings produce a heightened sense of presence.  They aren’t just pictures of pictures; the paintings seem to prefer elbowing past the intermediary photograph to look directly at original objects.  Kuharic’s handmade depictions ask us, with their conspicuous evidence of work, to notice more attentively and to care about what she has presented.  Nuanced inflections of light and edge secure each object into its functional place within the compositional machine.  Kuharic’s images radiate a sense of urgency in a style that could be called Hyperbolic Realism.  Objective description is performed with intense subjectivity.  Her eccentricity thrives at both the level of tiny marks and macro image selection.  Severe cropping gives some pictures a contingent snapshot quality that tips the densely packed, highly constructed, compositions off balance.  Conventionally unrelated images and discontinuities of scale are dispersed into promiscuously suggestive allegories.  Human subjects and inanimate objects are rendered equivalent within the densely colored and built-up paint-skin.

Kuharic’s ambitious paintings sustain in contemporary terms what T. E. Hulem praised in historical modern art, a “poetics of sensual immediacy and fragmentary vision.”  Super Bowl Sunday takes place in a world brought low by disaster.  The corner of a tiled bathroom stands alone in the center of a chaos of twisted pipes and shattered houses.  Six product-flowers made of spanking new consumer products float over the detritus like alien spacecraft.  One of them, for example, is made of fourteen bottles of Gatorade, which fan out from a ring of personal hygiene products encircling a ready-to-eat meat sandwich.  Kuharic’s tone is celebratory; newness and desirability blossom ecstatically over the ruins.  Super Bowl Sunday exemplifies what Bill Brown calls “the labor of infusing manufactured goods with a metaphysical dimension.”  The painting reroutes a mass cultural narrative of objects, from a story of production-distribution-consumption to one of deviant transformation.  Kuharic takes products out of circulation to recycle them before they are used.  Freshness is preserved by reinvigorated narrative potential.

Kuharic saves consumer goods from becoming waste at the same time as she saves them from being used at all.  Katharine Kuharic’s paintings bear their secrets in plain sight.  Jokes are hidden in a jaunty picture-puzzle manner, like rebus.  The tone of her references and associations range from intimate to alienated.  Desire and aversion are solicited according to personal interest.  Kuharic’s objects are conscripted into a regime of open-ended narrative and gendered symbolism.  All elements of the painting are ceremonially locked into position.  Everything is where it ought to be, but Kuharic is both controller and resister.  Her imagination collides with the congealed facts of contemporary culture to shake out ideas and ideologies that might be impacted there.  A Queer Populist Hallucinatory Realism celebrates the possibility of an alternative to the existing order; Kuharic shows that the world is perhaps already different from what it seems.

— David Humphrey