New EMP exhibit recalls "godawfulism"-in a good way

Illumination + Snack

By Kate McGraw

At the EMP Collective through June 9

Yes, that's a cat. And she's a very large cat at that. She is drawn directly on the gallery wall at EMP Collective's West Baltimore Street gallery/performance space. She is rendered in acrylic paint, it appears, with simple black lines tracing her body, face, eyes, and that furry part of the throat that makes her look like she has a double chin. On the floor in front of her is a scroll of brightly colored designs; it rests atop a pedestal as if it were a sacred text in some ancient temple. And the cat is, well, just sitting there. She sits in that pose that cats assume right after they've finished grooming or eating, when they walk to some random place-the windowsill, the corner of the bed, the top of a bookcase, some place on the floor-and take a seat, staring off intently into space as if they can see something that is completely undetectable to the human eye. They sit and stare as if it serves some higher purpose. Above the cat on the wall is a thought-balloon-like drawing shaped like a princess-cut precious stone. Diamonds, it appears, are a kitty's best friend too. Unless the stone is falling, in which case it's about to brain her. So it's difficult to tell: Is she in immediate danger or is she daydreaming about jewels?

Wait a second-daydreaming about jewels? A perfectly reasonable first response upon walking into the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Kate McGraw's Illumination + Snack solo show might be to turn around and walk right back out the door. Running around the gallery's walls are these small, 10-by-7-inch colored-pencil, gouache, and acrylic drawings/paintings featuring excitable colors and eye-paining designs. In the corner of the room is an installation of canvases leaning against the wall with a rug on the floor in front of them and smaller versions of the above cat drawn on the wall. And then there's the gigantic cat which dominates the room, which, to be quite honest, feels a little creepy-like the art-school dude who shows nude portraits of his ex-girlfriend at a crit. Seriously, McGraw, is that cat on the wall your cat? Because it sure as hell looks like the white cat that appears in photos on the katemcgrawdc Instagram page. Or is it racist to think that all white cats look alike? For crying out loud-that is the question an encounter with this exhibition produces in the brain.

One look around the gallery and the show kinda/sorta feels as though a crazy cat lady who always wears a sweater/sweatshirt decorated with fluorescent puffy paint walked into a warehouse and created a monument to her beloved pet. In dating, as in art, the only sane response to such is to run far, far away.

Unless there's something more going on here. If Illumination + Snack was merely the brain goo of a die-hard fan of both Cat Fancy and Paper Rad, the whole installation should feel annoyingly precious. The immediate impression here is different from that expectation, a vaguely and elusively odd sensation, which is enough to start considering a different response than dismissal. A decade back, the Los Angeles critic, artist, and general badass Doug Harvey searched for a term to describe what he witnessed L.A. painters exploring during the 1990s, what he described as a "profound and perversely gleeful pursuit of wrongness, camouflaged by seemingly earnest variations on conventional picture-making strategies." He quite brilliantly dubbed the approach "godawfulism" and he didn't mean it in a negative way.

McGraw's hot palette and visual disruptions share some godawful traits, particularly her "Chouffe Mountain," the installation of paintings leaning against the wall with the rug. Los Angeles painter Steven Hull explored lean-to painting installations in the 1990s, using canvas configurations on the floor as a different kind of compositional layering. McGraw appears to be experimenting with a similar idea but from a less-pure abstract vocabulary. Her canvas configuration includes some canvases of complicated designs, but there's also a landscape and a portrait-of a cat. Some pieces of tape on the wall have handwritten text in them. One contains something about former President Bush. Perhaps. The writings are mere fragments, snippets of ideas.

This element of the incomplete is what makes McGraw's work so prickly to the eye, short-circuiting narrative. Unlike wheatpasted fliers posted on building facades, which age and flake off and reveal layers of advertising time in the resulting deterioration. People's memories perform that collage process in the user experience of imagery that feeds the brain from print media, television, mobile devices, computer screens, and whatever else is vying for brains and the pocketbooks they govern.

In Illumination + Snack, McGraw hasn't quite figured out what she wants to say about that process, but the work is starting to feel out its own ideas. "Chouffe Mountain" is in many ways an analog representation of that digital-image erosion; McGraw presents it as a place for solitary meditation, as if a space to consider one moment of image-overload for longer than the instant that it passes through the mind. The series of small drawings/paintings of over-cranked colors and designs-titled "Chouffe Town Snackers" and "Mini Snacks with Threshold Corridor"-become like snapshots of visual data overload, much in the way Moviebarcode ( translates audiovisual narratives experienced over time into a single composition. And McGraw's gift for the aggressive finds a Zen-like place beyond the overkill in "Ubiquitous Band-Aid," a mixed-media piece that places small compositions of her busy and brightly colored designs into an ordered array atop a wall drawing. It's almost like a contact sheet of the visual information consumed over an entire month, compressed and artfully arranged on the wall.

As for the big cat piece, which is titled "Illumination + Snack," an impression is still gestating. Its monumental attitude makes it hard to ignore, but there's something about that the cat that's a little unnerving. And, to be perfectly honest, whatever's going on in her head-this exalted one before the altar, this beast that possibly dreams of diamonds, this creature who can see what you can't-well, perhaps some things are best left unknown.

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