Caitlin Keogh

by Jonathan Griffin

Overduin & Co, Los Angeles

Caitlin Keogh, Waxing Year 1 and Waxing Year 2, (both 2020)
Courtesy: the artist and Overduin & Co., Los Angeles

Caitlin Keogh’s ambitious exhibition, ‘Waxing Year’, at Overduin & Co in Los Angeles – which includes a group of seven large paintings interspersed with ten small, mixed-media assemblages – is, in many respects, a tour de force. Why, then, does it leave me wanting something more? 

The first thing that viewers of Keogh’s work must contend with is her technical virtuosity. Her paintings are rendered in velvety flat acrylic, with shapes deftly outlined – no crusty masking-taped edges here. The next is their density: motifs are overlaid and interwoven; compositions are decentred and arhythmic. Reading them is addictive.

‘Waxing Year’ (2021), the title of the seven-painting series, is borrowed from Robert Graves’s book on paganism and poetic myth, The White Goddess (1948). Other thematic anchors for the show – detailed in Keogh’s eloquent, first-person press release – include Piet Mondrian’s writings and the recent death of Keogh’s therapist. Motifs are imported from the artist’s deep reference archive of antique art and illustration, which proliferate across the paintings from one canvas to the next. Other elements might be drawn from life: a fragment of broken mirror that disappears off the left edge of Waxing Year 3 (2020) re-emerges on the right edge of Waxing Year 2 (2020) in the neighbouring room, where it overlaps a crumpled greyscale picture of a limbless, classical torso and is overlaid with mustard streamers. The conceit is that Keogh has dispensed with the edge of the picture plane and, with it, hierarchy and narrative. The reality is that the paintings are as poised and carefully composed as any other.

Populating her lively lexicon of imagery are botanical illustrations of frilly sea kelp; a Chinese lion; broken classical statues of female bodies; winged penises; William Morris’s Victorian floral designs; beasts from medieval manuscripts; trompe l’oeil pearls and pins; calligraphic flourishes; and lots of ribbons, swags and ropes that literally tie parts of the compositions together. 

Keogh tends to draw on sources that originated from high-stakes conditions: Morris’s radical socialism, for instance, Aubrey Beardsley’s queerness or the sacred devotion of illustrated manuscripts. In her work, however, those conditions are flattened, emptied out. Nostalgic for conviction, these works lack an obvious sense of risk: I miss doubt, vulnerability and the possibility of collapse or embarrassment. Keogh’s paintings are too tightly wrought for that.

First published: Frieze, 31 March 2021