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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

On absence and presence: Catherine Howard's Veil Tease

Posted by on Tue, Oct 4, 2011 at 7:25 AM

Diaphaneity. When was the last time you encountered that word? Perhaps never. But you likely embody it almost at all times.

A view of the hanging banner paintings in Catherine Howards Veil Tease. at the Carrack Modern Art Gallery through Oct. 12.
  • Photo by Chris Vitiello
  • A view of the hanging banner paintings in Catherine Howard's "Veil Tease." at the Carrack Modern Art Gallery through Oct. 12.
Catherine Howard's "Veil Tease," an installation of 15 free-hanging banner paintings, elaborates the strange human condition of having always to be both a physical and psychological being. These colorful scrolls, some of which flap out the open gallery windows on breezy days, fill the cavity of the Carrack Modern Art Gallery in Durham through Oct. 12. Although the show is already open, the gallery will host an opening reception on Oct. 6 at 7 p.m.

It's hard to locate the image in each painting as you walk among them. Because of the density of their arrangement, you're too close to make out the human figures without a real effort of attention. Each painting reveals just enough of a figure (asked if the figures were all female, Howard impishly answered "yes-ish") to make you feel like you're alone in an ambivalent crowd, but they're also pictorially indeterminate enough to seem naturally occurring like trees, prompting curious exploration of the space. You have to figure out how to experience this: as individual paintings or as a whole installation.

Four of Howards banners hang in the Carracks windows overlooking Parrish Street.
Although the spatial experience is compelling and sums to a feminist statement about body and image, Howard's show is essentially about these 15 individual images more than it's about their relationships. In each piece, she humanistically turns away from the bipolarity of abstraction and concreteness in favor of absence and presence. Polarity itself is likewise dropped in favor of simultaneity as colors and shapes bleed into each other, incomplete and additive. Some areas of a banner look like a solarized photo transfer, others bleed into each other like watercolor or batik. But it's not chaos. Your eye, cued by a few visual anchors, seeks to identify Howard's figures.

Against a peach background wash, a dancer squats in profile, back against a wall, arms over her head, extended to a mutual fist. Her body outlines burst with blue and purple like ink emerging from an underwater crack. The yellow that fills parts of her body bleeds into the line colors. The interpenetration of the colors balances a kinetic impression against the meditative posture of the woman. She's both at the mercy of and impervious to the inchoate blurs that comprise her.

In another piece, an upside-down figure hovers both behind and in front of a green shimmering field. Her body wavers and fades. But her closed eye and open mouth visually jut from the piece in emphatic, unmodulated browns, drawing the eye away from the gentle greens. "Yeah, she turned into a zombie," Howard joked about the facial contrast. Nonetheless, this sleeper is both peaceful and threatening.

Howard applies layers of image and color to the polyester in phased sessions. First, a wash of house paint sets an amorphous background tone. Once that dries, Howard sketches figural outlines in pencil, responding to the ins and outs of the fabric's absorption of and resistance to the house paint. A second set of colors comes next, in acrylic paint that bleeds into the fabric, resolving the initial wash with the sketched figure while adding regions of obscurant detail. In her final session, Howard clarifies a few specific features of the figure with opaque oil paint.

The afternoon before the opening, Howard perched on a ladder, sanding the backs of the banners to thin the fabric in certain areas in order to allow more light through. "You have to break it in and play with it a lot for the fabric to accept the paint," she explained, implicating the limited randomness of the polyester's role in her painterly gestures. "Everything was a kind of quick mark or split-second decision."

Something multiple and singular—like, for instance, you or anyone—should be hard to look at. Form and meaning have as tenuous and problematic a relationship as body and identity. These relationships will be addressed in a panel discussion in the gallery on Saturday, Oct. 8 at 1 p.m. entitled "Female Bodies, Female Artists: Reclaiming Gaze and Promoting Positive Self-Image," hosted by the Duke Center for Eating Disorders. Howard and others will share how making images can express issues in a way that possibly feed positivity back upon the viewer, as well as the artist who creates them.

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