Close Reading: Katy Richards at HEDGE
The months pass and the memes metastasize as the COVID crisis wears on; we become less familiar to one another and less sure of ourselves. The fact that most of us wear masks in public, now, is especially confusing, obscuring emotional cues and familiar expressions. It’s as if much of the nuance of the social world was blanked out like the pages of a redacted FBI report. Under such conditions, powers of inference need to work overtime, as we look for clues to behavior and meaning in unaccustomed places. At least the smile (so often false anyhow) no longer rules.
That’s reason enough for an artist to explore the human body one piece at a time, in search of a sense of what it might mean to be whole, integrated in a life where everything fits, works, makes sense. In ancient rhetoric and modern poetry, the relevant term is “synecdoche”, a metaphorical use of a part to stand for the whole. In the Cleveland painter Katy Richard’s current work at Hedge Gallery the part in question is, most basically, human skin, and the appendages it wraps, the experience of life that it records, the feelings it arouses. And skin is touch, another frequently circumscribed or forbidden human necessity, the primary interface set between self and any other.
A few contemporary painters have influenced Richards’ work. Lucian Freud and Jenny
Saville, for example, have tackled issues of alienation and identification through intensely
observed renditions of nude flesh. Both have painted portraits of various people and of
themselves, unsparing depictions of weight and age that ask the viewer to look hard at the raw meat of physical being. For them and other expressive figurative artists the human body is not so much a thing of beauty as it is a force. Their vividly energetic paintings speak about tensions found in every particle of the universe, about the divided, haunted, often ugly condition of being real. The nudes of Freud especially cast a shadow in the mind and eye. Such paintings can seem overwhelmingly bleak and cynical, even hostile. Yet their apparent gusts of negativity may really be echoes of our own reluctance to see plainly.
Katy Richards’ questions are less scary, at least in newer works at Cleveland’s HEDGE
Gallery, in a solo show titled See Myself Something Different, which is a line from a song by Fiona Apple. Scary or not (and some of them, like her incredibly detailed pictures of open mouths showing every variation of tooth enamel, every drip and drool of saliva and spit bubble) are as elaborately frank as an oral hygiene diagram (or maybe dental pornography). The fact that they are so small is absolutely essential to their success as paintings. Richards makes it clear that size is not what counts, least of all when it comes to broaching existential concerns. One remembers that, despite all his mammoth nudes, Lucian Freud’s most notoriously offensive painting is a tiny portrait study of Queen Elizabeth, much of which is taken up by the height of her crown. Most of the paintings at HEDGE Gallery are just a foot or so square. Some of the 57 works are even smaller, and it matters that you can’t stand back from such tightly detailed images. Viewers are drawn in, away from the gallery space and ideas of safe social distancing. Several works are depictions of a single eye (Richards’ eye in fact, originally caught looking at itself, and now in the gallery looking at your eye). There are many versions of her mouth, in increasingly extreme close-up, and other series of hands and feet, and vistas – long views down the length of a nude body in the bathtub. All of these conjure a curious sense of a self, recreating somebody else’s experience as any painting always does, but in a way that brings into focus the strangeness of difference.
While the show also includes several whole-face self-portraits, these tend to be tightly
framed views of Richards’ disembodied countenance, bumping up against the edges of the
canvas like a specimen of face-ness trapped in a box. Despite keeping one toe (so to speak) in the waters of traditional painting, the exhibit remains engaged in very contemporary investigations of what that art form can accomplish in the 21st century, as she explores the associative powers of discrete fragments. It’s not only a show about identity and about Richards herself, but also an examination of the way that metaphors work. The tricks of comparison and substitution make us see better, notice the details of flesh from an unaccustomed vantage point.
Thoughts arise about all that we share with other, similar beings. Several slightly larger paintings go on to show the painter’s face and torso, but as seen in a shattered mirror or wrapped in shadows, making the visitor put together a partly subjective impression of the artist, composed in the viewfinder of the mind. Thus they are a meta-metaphor of the exhibit itself.
On a purely aesthetic level there are other pleasures here. At times Richards’ bravura
painterly technique rises to an impressive level of trompe l’oeil, as in that painting of her eye, which is also a depiction of eye make-up. The gray-green transparency of the iris and faint pink veins faintly visible in the sclera are as identifiable as in an anatomy lesson, while a reflection of windows floats just below the eyelid, above a bottomless black pupil; surrounding skin tones are perfectly recreated and the eyelashes could win a prize for quirky verisimilitude. Each pokes out from the narrow, eyeliner-coated lip of the eyelids like so many burnt matchsticks, each the thickness of a single hair, stiffened by mascara, clumping and jerking apart. Their odd, slightly grotesque shapes argue Richards’ overarching theme especially well. They are the “something different” of Apple’s song, a demarcation standing at the border between the familiar and the strange, brought about by a close reading of life itself.