Caitlin Keogh and Contemporary Female Surrealism
By Sukayna Powell
Brooklyn-based artist Caitlin Keogh’s works are highly saturated with intelligent reflections stemming from her historical awareness and contemporary insight; however, they do not, on that account, feel heavy. Their symbolism is as deftly handled as the clean black outlines that feel reminiscent both of archaic fashion illustrations and contemporary comic books. What prevents her paintings from feeling frivolous or too reminiscent of graphic design is the psychological resonance of the subject matter. Keogh deals with the tangled and often inarticulable feelings that are part and parcel of inhabiting a female body in the twenty-first century.
Headless bodies, disembodied hands, perforated torsos and floating internal organs confront the viewer from her (usually large) canvasses; her bodies are torn and caught in thorns, ropes and lattices. A quiet air of self-inflicted violence pervades the works, but is complicated by symbolic references tied directly to an external cultural violence: snakes, arms and armour, and elements evocative of high fashion culture are frequent motifs. A third layer, the entropic violence of biological reality, is found in the presence of fungi and maggots and the surprising use of muddy browns and khakis in otherwise pleasing colour palettes of pinks, creams, oranges and china blues.
Keogh’s flat style allows her to lean heavily on the sense that all of these layers and elements, including the beholder’s share, are at this point inextricably entwined. At first glance, elements appear layered like paper cut-outs, but there are often unexpected transparencies – places where the internal rules are confounded, and any sense of planar stability is undermined. Keogh uses techniques derived from traditional sign-painting, which contribute to the flatness and clarity of line and, as such, she is an excellent contemporary example of the strikingly postmodern combination of a semi-skilled artist engaged in figural work.
Although her tone is light and often touched with humour, her preoccupation with mortality and physicality as experienced by both the conscious and subconscious mind is what engages the individual viewer. Her emphasis on the mind-body relationship and the dreamlike co-existence of timelessness, quietude, and violence push her beyond pop play with the relationship between fashion, art, and art history, into the realm of contemporary surrealism. The conscious/subconscious paradigm is updated somewhat, from the simple Freudian division and alienation, to engage with contemporary neurological understanding. Mental experience has a physical element; the subconscious is not just ‘located’ in the brain, but also in the central nervous system, and even in the gut. Keogh’s headless bodies reflect the impossibility of bodily transcendence – the natural impulsive response to mortality; to violent cultural paradigms; even to the disturbing ‘organic-ness’ of being ‘too too solid flesh’ – through the mind, because the mind is diffused throughout the body.
In this, she is part of a contemporary wave of female artists whose work engages both with surrealist themes, surrealistic visions, and – crucially – the human body. Where earlier surrealists like Leonora Carrington tended to focus on external spaces – fantastical landscapes and impossible architecture – contemporary surrealists are turning inwards, to warp and undermine their inescapable physical form, always with one eye on the shifting palimpsest that is the history of figural representation. This fascination is not confined to painters like Keogh and Gabriella Boyd; sculptors and photographers like Kelly Akashi and Jo Ann Callis share the same preoccupation with the visceral truths of simultaneously being and having a body.
The resonance of artworks in this category is broad. Notably, the fashion world has been quick to pick up on the potential of the new surrealism and the magnetic quality of the works being produced under its loose canopy. Gucci has recently collaborated with painters Fatima Ronquillo, who paints surreal portraits of children, eyes, hands, and pearls, and Ignasi Monreal, who is not female, but whose work is certainly surreal. They commissioned or promoted works featuring the brand’s clothes, jewellery, or motifs, and are building surrealism into their aesthetic revamp. Surreal art appeals in part through the impression of revelation in potentia and tying commercial products and brand identity to that sense of potential, to the fleeting glimpse of transcendence, is a stroke of marketing genius. Sure enough, it has been a hugely effective marketing tool, and provided the artists with a lot of exposure, though some questions of artistic integrity are undoubtedly valid. Embracing surrealism is a long-standing and storied tradition in the fashion industry (one that is currently being revived with a vengeance), and surrealism itself has historically embraced fashion and theatrical design and other more peripheral or ‘decorative’ art forms.
The results of this creative exchange are almost always stimulating and engaging. Nevertheless, the edge of pop-art cynicism in Keogh’s works is a welcome reminder that there are boundaries between art and fashion, and that fashion is one of the primary forces acting on the body, especially the female body, and therefore on the psychological experience of having a physical form. Art that addresses that experience should be aware of this layer of reality. Keogh’s art is a useful palate-cleanser, because it is structurally surreal but at the same time does not allow you an uncomplicated sense of potential transcendence or revelation. It is too semiotically aware, and too self-aware. It empathises with the viewer’s own desire to escape her body, but does not allow her to do so, even by means of itself.
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