AMY CASEY: TO BE CONTINUED
The painter Amy Casey lives in a smallish house that might be found (and often is) somewhere in one of her paintings. Like its resident, the house minds its own business on the sidelines, aware of, but mostly uninvolved in, the surrounding bustle of its quasi-gentrified Cleveland neighborhood. Over a period of years her activities have spread through the clapboard structure: first occupying all of the upstairs space and, by now, some of the downstairs too, accompanied by cats, plus her longtime partner, photographer Lou Muenz, and of course a trail of art. During a typical week she works long nights, eight or ten hours at a stretch. The resulting paintings and etchings eventually spread out into galleries and the homes of collectors all over the country. Principally she exhibits at Zg Gallery in Chicago, but also in New York at Foley Gallery, plus venues in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and elsewhere (in Cleveland her beloved studio-away-from-studio, the printmaking collective Zygote Press, most recently mounted a show of Casey’s works on paper). All this inexorable spreading, painting and cat-owning has chugged along for the better part of two decades, so the rhythms of Casey’s life seem discernible, if not exactly predictable.
But every so often she plans an interruption. She applies for out-of-town artist residencies, the farther-flung the better, and often gets them. Over the past few years there have been sojourns in Homer, Alaska and Hämeenkyrö, Finland. Both were part of exchange programs with arts organizations that partner with Zygote Press, and in both she encountered landscapes and perspectives that impacted her imagery in important ways. She’s still painting lots of trees, years later. Late in 2019 Casey was approved by the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation for a twelve-week stay during the first quarter of 2020 in one of its eleven casitas, located on fifteen acres in downtown Taos, New Mexico. She’s been holed up there since January 31. Standards for admission to this artists’ village (which allots self-contained dwellings to three visual artists, plus others in several disciplines) are high, but expectations of recipients during their stay are more than reasonable. The Foundation’s mission “to support the artist and the creative process” is “a gift of time and space.” In other words, bring your own supplies and pay for WiFi (if you really want it).
I talked to her on the phone during the third week in April, when all of us had been sheltering in place for more than five weeks. She was due to come back to Cleveland around the end of the month, but said it was unclear whether or not she’d be able to stay on in New Mexico a bit longer, as she hoped. Then there was the question of her upcoming solo show at Canton Museum of Art, slated to open August 22, resulting from the museum’s CAN Triennial exhibition prize. We intended to preview that exhibit in this article, but it’s hard to be sure about any scheduled public event during the COVID-19 crisis. Casey has been assured that the showing, provisionally titled, Continued Continuing, is going to happen right on time, so we went on to talk about the images she plans to include there. I was aware that she often tries to arrange a residency prior to a major show, to finish up existing work and make new things. But normalcy has been put on hold.
“It’s been a weird residency,” she sighed. “It’s hard to concentrate on painting. It’s not a big place (Taos has about 6000 permanent residents), and there aren’t a lot of COVID-19 cases here —fifteen or sixteen right now—so I’ve been walking around, exploring dead ends, seeing what’s there. Back in February some us went to Roswell for a day … But there’s not much going on, since all nonessential businesses are closed. And they’ve cancelled their next residency. Maybe I could stay till mid-May, but it’s harder to plan studio work, not knowing for sure when I’m coming home. I’m a little…dangling here.”
Casey was told by the Canton curator there would be room for up to 26 paintings (which in itself might make a person nervous). Fortunately the title of the exhibit is (purposefully) forgiving, and the notion of continuing leaves plenty of room for familiar themes to echo and recur. She sent me jpegs of four works in progress that will probably end up on the walls in Canton’s space. While I have no trouble recognizing her skeins of visual thought, and though they are unfinished, they seem to me fraught with new energies and a kind of pictorial authority.
“Usually my paintings are about the beginnings of things unraveling,” she told me. “They ask, what is the least you can have and still have a city?”
That’s an understatement. Casey has been painting straight-up apocalypses for the better part of twenty years. Her piles of houses and factories, twisted skeins of highways and bridges, some of which date back to within a few years of our most recent collective disaster in 2001, anticipate the empty streets of the spring of 2020. They could be memorials for the present abrupt moment, when we teeter at the verge of an unanticipated, unimaginable, terrifying absence. The contradiction at the core of her work, and at the heart of this new, real first taste of global apocalypse, is that there seem to be no people, even though everything is predicated on their presence. Of course, in Casey’s paintings in general there are literally no persons anywhere, only carefully observed, very individual buildings infused with the absent personalities and outmoded functions of a civilization that has evaporated. Only a blank paper sky remains, and, in some (another recent development in Casey’s visions), choppy primeval waters, beating against the last husks of our hubris-freighted Anthropocene era.
Since her trips to Finland and Alaska, the domestic, civil, and commercial rustbelt architectural samples that are Casey’s stock-in-trade have been mixed (in a DJ-like sense) with infinities derived from a more natural world. Birch forests, lopped off at different heights or leveled down to the mossy forest floor, fill whole panels. At other times, a house (on at least two occasions it’s Amy’s house) sits aloft on the stump of a young tree, like an anchorite high on a lonely basalt column. At this point it should be said that it’s probably impossible to look too hard at an Amy Casey painting. Executed with the obsessive-seeming meticulousness (and OCD-style over-numerousness) of a seventeenth century Persian miniature, a closer look always reveals another layer of information and further painterly precision. Her buildings aren’t just rendered and stacked, like cartoon pancakes. They embrace every manner and use of urban architecture from early to mid-twentieth century rustbelt cities. Her paintings could be studied as historical documents, representing a phase of American industrial and residential curbside structures, since they are also quite literal portraits of real buildings found on the streets of Cleveland and Erie (her original home), and a few other places.
While achieving this remarkable exposition, Casey also is busy playing with the visual vocabulary she generates, and it’s the dramatic and compositional thrill of that further phase of her painting which has the most obvious appeal. In Huddle (which will be in the Canton show), for instance, she presents a relatively calm island of city buildings, as if a few blocks of Cleveland had been shipped or lofted to a makeshift stand of lopped-off, amputated-looking trees, maybe oaks or maples. There the structures sit, not dumped (as in the painting from 2019 that lends the show its name, Continued Continuing) but piled carefully on top of one another singly or in groups on stump platforms. As we see them, from an airborne perspective (angle of view is a further crucial component of Casey’s compositions) and at a slight distance, the aging brick buildings look precarious but intact; and the greenish, icy waters that stretch all around to a blank horizon, lap peaceably at the grooved bark on the tree trunks below.
There’s a follow-up work, or I believe that’s what it is, titled Kaboom. Kaboom shows this same stack of buildings a moment after an explosion has sent them flying, crashing into each other in mid-air against a billowing backdrop of dark grey smoke. They move diagonally across the panel, shedding bricks and debris as they collide—all carefully, believably detailed by the artist. It’s a breathless spectacle. Casey’s commitment to her visions and her imaginative rectitude make her paintings oddly convincing; they seem to reach out to involve the viewer, always asking the question “what happened here,” and providing only an artificially constructed verisimilitude as answer. If her works sound grim or pessimistic, that isn’t quite the way they feel. They embody plenty of emotion, but fear isn’t the main subject. They are parables, stories about the richness of vision, songs of a kind sung to the textures and complexity, the fascination of life as we know it, and the stark wonder evoked by a hard look at the vast, horribly beautiful planetary forces that can sweep it all away.