Katherine Richards' oil painting "Goya Landscape" brings to memory two essential experiences in the life of the art viewer. Seeing it, one remembers being a child standing before the elegance and violence of Old Masterly scenes of Greek and Biblical epics. A thought passes, and the viewer is an older child squinting to understand the cloudy realities of Modernism.
In the oil on panel painting, pink masculine shapes flex arms and backs in naked combat. Strong as the figures are, the sky bleeds through their bodies where they are thinnest. Patches of blue blot through flesh, and the bodies dissolve into the air. An upside-down figure's skyward-pointed leg leaves a peach trail behind itself. A liver-colored viscera shape floats amidst the fray. At the center of the fray, limbs and torsos of unresolved ownership pile upon each other in midair.
"Goya Landscape," and Richards' other works in her Consuming Bodies exhibition ongoing at Rotten Meat Gallery exist between two worlds. One is populated by the ideal but anatomically precise depictions of the human body in Renaissance, Rococo, and Romantic figure painting. The other is one of forms unconstrained by the rules of earthly space and definite boundaries. She cites as influences Rubens and Gustave Dore, who brought bodily realism to mythological scenes, but also Willem de Kooning, for whom flesh flowed and billowed in semi-abstract space. Richards describes her paintings as a loose history of depictions of the body, and that approach allows her to examine corporeal reality from countless angles.
"Gush" is a study of human as geometry. Using only three strategically placed tan triangles, Richards paints a bent knee and two elbows with plausible proportions; the viewer fills in the rest of a person. We see a figure lying on her back, flexing her arms to get ready to get up. Or, the lower arm is propping the subject's torso up while the higher one blocks a blow by an unseen attacker. Around where the subject's hip would be, the only red in the painting splatters in a surging wave. The gush and a haze of intestine-shaped wriggles censoring the figure's torso make this human a mortal thing.
The sexed quality of the body is explored in the oil "Tangling," a pink-orange world where four arms orbit around a bare torso, stroking or reaching for it. The watercolor "Interior Woods" presents the human as a natural entity in Nature, part of its unity and a form rivaling any of its others in beauty. A nude woman stands in a forest, arms outstretched towards family of deer evading wolves.
The watercolor "Shipwreck" presents it as a weighted object enslaved by gravity. On two cliffs cleaved by a waterfall, a dozen bodies flop motionless on the rocks, limbs splaying with indifference. Over the rocks looms the blunt prow of Noah's Ark. The allusion to the drowning of the world reminds the viewer the body is also the theater of moral choice. Blue sky leaks between the ship's planks, making it seem to hover above the carnage.
However, the show on a whole leaves one optimistic. Too often the history that contemporary artists inherit is treated as a cause of despair, as if looking back reveals nothing new is left, and all that is left for us is irony and gaze-hungry navels. So when an artist like Richards engages the legacies of her craft in constructive ways, it is tremendously exciting.
The exhibition runs through Saturday January 26 at 1814 East 40th St., Suite 4B. For more information, call 216-469-4896 or search for Rotten Meat Gallery on Facebook.