katy crowe

Abstract West Coast Women Painters
Her California Continuum at 60 Wall Gallery

Deutsche Bank, New York

Seven years after her death, Helen Lundeberg was paid an extraordinary homage. The legendary band Sonic Youth dedicated a song to her on their 2006 album Rather Ripped in which they listed all the titles of the paintings in the exhibition Helen Lundeberg and the Illusory Landscape, which was shown posthumously at the Louis Stern Fine Arts gallery in Los Angeles. This was not by chance. Sonic Youth, whose album covers are adorned with works by Gerhard Richter and the West Coast artists Mike Kelley and Raymond Pettibon, is also an established name in the U.S. art scene. With their song, they immortalize a pioneer of 1960s Hard-edge painting. Lundeberg, whose works were also represented in the major survey show Pacific Standard Time, had a strong impact on West Coast painting. Born in Chicago in 1908, she moved with her family to Pasadena, where she attended art school. At the art college, she met her later husband Lorser Feitelson, with whom she studied. In the mid-1930s, they jointly founded Subjective Classicism, which was strongly influenced by Surrealism, Renaissance painting, and artists such as Giorgio de Chirico. While in the 1940s Lundeberg created dreamlike paintings in which she combines figures or objects with geometrically reduced spatial elements, at the end of the 1950s her painting approached pure abstraction. “My work has been concerned ... with the effort to embody, and to evoke states of mind, moods and emotions,” says Lundeberg. She distilled pure surfaces, glowing colors, and pure forms from her former lyrical interiors and landscapes. Lundeberg became one of the most important protagonists of a Californian kind of abstract art that was inspired more by Malevich, Mondrian, and Albers than by the New York School Abstract Expressionism that was taking the world by storm at the time. And unlike her male contemporaries such as de Kooning and Pollock, Lundeberg never made an international breakthrough.

Her California Continuum is the title of an exhibition at 60 Wall Gallery that juxtaposes Lundeberg with four other women abstract painters. The show focuses on a specifically female formal idiom that has manifested itself in various ways and been used in West Coast painterly abstraction from the 1950s up to the present day. The exhibition resulted from exchanges between Liz Christensen, Senior Curator of Deutsche Bank in New York, and the Los Angeles-based painter Katy Crowe, who is represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection. Her California Continuum is part of an ongoing series for which artists in the corporate collection are invited to co-curate thematic exhibitions featuring works from the collection as well as loans. Crowe, who was born in 1952, was interested in creating a formal dialogue between the different artists, as well as promoting the visibility of female artists, which is often lacking. Apart from Lundeberg, another Hard-edge woman artist is on view at the Wall Street 60 gallery: June Harwood. Born in 1933, Harwood actually belongs to the generation after Lundeberg’s. But both women painted abstract geometric works in the 1960s, and like Lundeberg, who imbued her compositions with associative and lyrical elements, Harwood was not content with merely reducing the canvas to flat color surfaces that contrast positively and negatively. By developing open, interwoven forms and kinetic effects, she added dynamism and movement to static Hard-edge painting.

The link between formal precision, intuition, as well as an experimental and playful dimension, unites all of the artists in the exhibition. They are all talented colorists. Virginia Holt started painting in the 1960s. Her expressive abstractions are inspired by music and pop culture, especially by the sound of Captain Beefheart. She was friends with Don Van Vliet, who painted himself. Just as Captain Beefheart created his own unique psychedelic style from the classic music genres rock and blues, Holt used quotations from modernism and the history of geometric abstraction to develop new expressive possibilities. Katy Crowe began painting in the 1970s, and the two artists have maintained a lively exchange since the 2000s. From the very beginning, Crowe felt drawn in her painting to fundamental architectonic forms, to which she later added organic structures, which she also reduced and broke down to explore the effects of color and surface. The youngest artist in the exhibition, Pamela Jorden went to California in 1994 to study at Cal Arts, an art school famous for its conceptual and institution-critical orientation. In the mid-1990s, painting was regarded as a conservative medium with little promise. But Jordan managed to combine conceptual thinking with the vocabulary of modern abstraction. Her paintings recall geological cross-sections of layers of the earth or tectonic plates sliding past one another. Thus, Her California Continuum draws a line that connects the postwar period with the present. On this line, manifold painterly approaches, discourses, and biographies cross, showing the strong impact women artists have had had on California painting of the last decades and how underestimated female artists have been. ArtMag by Deutsche Bank

artUS, Issue #31, 2011
rebidishu two

Esther Ribot

Katy Crowe/Recent Paintings Los Angeles Harbor College Fine Arts Gallery | Wilmington, CA Katy Crowe’s “Rebidishu Two” (though November 13, 2010) was exhibited at Los Angeles Harbor College Gallery, whose modest presence in the college’s fine arts building belies the significance of artist Ron Linden’s curatorial program, which over the last ten years has featured such established artists as Ted Twine, Coy Howard, Merwin Belin and Dave Smith. In the case of Crowe, her long professional career is marked by a strong emphasis on process, resulting in intricate, studied abstractions. Each drawing or painting responds to prior work, just as each brushstroke is the logical answer to the one before. Crowe lets the painting carry her wherever it needs to go, but she always holds the reins, ensuring that no movement will be lost or hidden. Her light, transparent brushstrokes enable the viewer to make out every step of the process, even though it’s a bit like working your way backwards through a labyrinth. Employing muted or pastel colors, Crowe’s new paintings propel us into kinetic worlds where abstract patterns just as easily lose their way as rise gently to the surface. Obscure, mosaic structures give way to objective wonderment, while still standing by and out in their sophistication. What also defines the work the artist does is her undeniable charm or bonhomie. She clearly enjoys the view from her platform far above these abstract landscapes, over which she seems to preside with almost welcoming pride. Even so, there’s nothing casual about them. It is fitting that her titles, like “Castor and Pollux”, “Circe” or “Calypso” (all 2010), come mostly from the “Odyssey”, which in time has come to stand for every epic adventure. One is tempted, of course, to conjure Homeric figures from her geometrical shapes. But Crowe’s work is not representational, and even “Rebidishu Two” is a complete invention, so becomes itself a manifesto or declaration of principles. It’s no accident that Ron Linden’s concurrent paintings show at Gallery 478 in San Pedro, titled “TRANSREASON/ BEYONSENSE”, appears formally related to Crowe’s “Rebidishu Two”, neither artist simply traces random brushstrokes or allows the immediate to take control of their canvas. Reminiscent of Theodor Adorno’s notion of the “false immediacy of enjoyment”, the unconscious gesture is granted respite from the processes of secondary revision that otherwise cannot but dominate a seasoned practice of abstraction.

artUS, Issue #17, 2007

Laurence A. Rickels

Katy Crowe is the inaugural exhibition of Jancar Gallery, located just a few blocks north of its earlier incarnation. In Ali Acerol:Three Story Man in a One Story Town, a collection of Acerol’s autobiographical and poetic words transcribed, compiled, and edited by Richard Hertz (Minneola Press, 2006), we find the former venue (Jancar-Kulenschmidt) extolled as ”the hottest gallery” that “did beautiful shows” (9). Acerol’s reminiscence of a Christopher Williams show sets the standard: “it consisted of three photos of J.F. Kennedy, showing him from the back. He had ordered the images from the library of Congress. When I saw them, I thought it was an incredible series. The message was: if the camera were a gun, anybody could shoot Kennedy. But those images were taken way before Kennedy was shot” (9).

William’s work was thus at several removes from being about documentation, however self-reflexively contained or doubled. Katy Crowe’s paintings, abstractions on canvas and linen, are also only remotely about representation. And yet something just as spectacular and empty as the JFK assassination serves as “quilting point” in the course of her formal investigations. Crowe’s recent work has occupied (or cathected) one of two recognizable foregrounds whereby they can be identified in the midst of their layering and mixing of colors: either as wavy, woven-line compositions or as loosening grids, pileups, and networks of hourglasses and diamond shapes. The paintings shown at Jancar were chosen from column B.

The diamond and hourglass grids stem from the single recognizable warning label on the (female) black widow spider’s belly. The first paintings in this series, from 1993-94, were accordingly focused on the single shape under titles like Widow Hour and Orange Widow. Then quite a stretch of dormancy or latency set in. When the motif reemerged, it was in aggregate form, at first piled up to suggest nests of spider eggs. The span of tension between the single hourglass or death’s - head and the multi-cellular composition of generated life could serve as “illustration” of Freud’s drive theory in Beyond the Pleasure Principle - right down to the close quarters of deferral of death or quiescence that Freud, arguing explicitly as “Devil’s advocate,” accords life or Eros. The widow spiders never earned their name. They do not in fact devour their mates in the afterglow, though at times, mistaking them for prey, they do, but only occasionally, chow down on their man of the hour. But the newly hatched spiderlings are the real cannibals, gobbling up their siblings. In nature, the survival rate of each batch of newly generated life is regularly reduced, most frequently by outside threats. The threat to the spiderlings, however, is preemptively self-administered, doubled and contained. In like manner, as Freud argues in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, the death or suicide drive protects the group against the exogamous or accidental influences of reproduction, substitution, and mourning.

The most recent paintings on display suggest the black widow’s drooping web. In certain clusters within the webs the discrete shapes let loose and let go, pushing through a praxis or metabolism that equates looseness with restraint, and which makes and breaks rules or structures always only to invite accident to happen. Crowe’s happy accidents are dedicated to color. Her palette is derived from contact with the works of other artists or with nature. The palette of Cecil (2006), for example, glows not only via flashback to the hotel of that name in Alexandria – at once citations property of Durrell’s city and memorial framing of the contact she made while in Egypt with colors that seemed to come right out of the earth, like gems - but also in communication with Gustav Klimt’s golden grids which had around that time ensnared her in their intrigue.

Except for the watercolor Spider Nest II (2004) which belongs to the onset of return of the hourglass, but in the groove or weave of its group formatting, the palette suggested by the spider’s nature – blacks, browns, whites, yellows, oranges, and reds – is not transferred intact to these works. Crowe’s choice of color takes you by surprise in the midst of one’s readiness for red and orange. Her colors are often cool, flat, artificial-seeming, more “off” that pop, like house paint selections reflecting a certain Californian dread of white walls. Of course as a Southern Californian artist, Crowe is aware that, to all appearances, even our sunsets reflect the second nature of color’s commercial outlet and storage. Like the spider’s venom that doesn’t kill but impresses itself upon you as shock or discomfort, Crowe’s colors knock the viewer out of the running (apropos the spiderlings) of “good taste” into the position of testing what Walter Benjamin famously accorded the original moviegoers, a position that, to come full circle, Christopher Williams tends to allegorize around photography’s guilty assumptions. 

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