Perversity has always sought refuge inside the decorative, the fashionable, the frivolous. Where safer to stow one’s proclivities, or anxieties, than inside the acceptable bounds of good taste and impeccable manners? A surface is the first and most fertile site of the sensual; an adorned surface (clothed skin, painted canvas) lets an eye wander, wonder, look for codes, and imagine depths, while leaving itself and its object whole — and wholly unscathed.
The paintings of Caitlin Keogh titillate in much the same way, pressing our attention to the surface — diverting it with familiar, “feminine” subjects made peculiar and uneasy — and then leaving it there, holding it at bay, stuck in the act of forging connections, or seeking reflections, that may or may not appear. The artist’s hand works with the precision and legibility of a fashion illustrator, and the great couturier Christian Dior is a muse (or at least, a specter) for Keogh’s show, his presence invoked in five of the exhibition’s twelve works. (It was Dior who touted that simplicity was the essence of true elegance — an idea Keogh seems to have taken to heart.) For one canvas, titled Repeating Autobiography, Keogh paints copies of his memoir falling alongside their mirror images, a sly jab at the self-reflexive (and coolly over-the-top) title: Dior by Dior.
Her lines are fluid, easy, deft. Her subjects — here: flowers, books, bodies — are composed of outlines flatly filled in (most of the time) with soft, pleasing colors. In her canvases, women’s bodies are a purely plastic presence, more mannequin than woman, more form than female. Whether by violence or by design (it’s the most fun to think of these actions as intertwined), they’ve been neatly cut up. All are headless and largely limbless; guts, when they make an appearance in Keogh’s Renaissance Painting, are rendered like oddball blossoms, or alien ornaments — bewitching and weirdo all at once.
Inside this push-pull of seduction and distaste, Keogh uncovers fresh, funny kink. (She seems well aware that the semiotic upheavals of surrealism were cannibalized by Madison Avenue long ago, so that new meaning must upend the dusty misogyny of its classic alt-narratives.) Correspondences features a pale female torso wound around with a boa (not the feathered kind). The serpent has neither head nor tail; it’s been rolled into a flaccid and heavy infinity loop and heaped onto the blunted “Eve.” Useless creatures. No apple to offer, no head to receive the knowledge of good and evil. In other words: nothing to give or be given, no way to lure or be lured out of (or into) Eden. Ah, well.
The exhibition’s titular painting, Loose Ankles, is its most overtly erotic. Two feet severed above the ankles are hogtied together and perched in a pair of stack-heeled lemon-colored pumps that look plucked straight off the shelves of the chic L.E.S. boutique Maryam Nassir Zadeh. Tied between them is a hand holding a lit cigarette with the utmost ladylike poise. Fetish is always a matter of reduction; all the libidinous fizz bubbles from a single detail. So which detail is it? The shoes? Perhaps, though they’re a relatively sensible choice, even for the most stylish woman. I say it’s the cigarette, once a classic cinematic metaphor, now a banned, hyper-taxed, habit non grata. And as I always say: Where there’s smoke, there’s mirrors.
Caitlin Keogh: ‘Loose Ankles’
520 West 20th Street
Through October 29