Recalling a memory is a lot like playing a phone game. Details change, confidence in narrative disclaimers and overall meaning slowly evolves. Over the past two years, as the world was forced indoors, the outer elements that helped form memories disappeared and only our inner spaces remained. To “live” meant to live within. In Catherine Haggarty’s first solo exhibition with Geary Contemporary, aptly titled Living, she explores this condition of the previous two years in paintings of intimate interior scenes with distorted perspective and layers of art historical references. Haggarty’s paintings, made of glued materials including oil stick, acrylic, wax crayon and airbrush, often depict figures who are almost always sleeping, sometimes alone, sometimes with other people and cats. Many of his paintings are bathed in dreamy hues of blue and purple. The patterns repeat, transform and move around the room. Haggarty asks the viewer to question their own memory and sense of logic and reflect on the people, spaces and things that have made up our lives for two long years.
To explore his life during lockdown, Haggarty chose to primarily depict the interior of his bedroom with sleeping figures as the daylight changes around them. The viewer is entitled to an intimate look at these private moments. In day nap, a figure reclines diagonally on a disheveled bed, suggesting restless sleep. The sleeper settled down with his head just off the edge, as if he were still spinning to find the perfect spot. A fractured and washed-out light bathes the room.
The point of view of day nap with the viewer watching from the foot of the bed is used in most bedroom scenes. The lighting, occupants and colors of each work change to the point that it becomes difficult to know if the same room is represented, but familiar objects follow one another. These subtly contradictory feelings of familiarity and uncertainty cause the viewer to stop and question their own memory to decide whether they have seen each image before or not. After two years of intermittent periods of confinement and isolation, this sense of confused repetition, especially of an interior space, is undeniably familiar.
Throughout her work, Haggarty plays with light, shadow and perspective to convey a range of feelings from dramatic and overwhelming to calm and ethereal. In Kitten hunt, an eerie, elongated shadow of a cat cuts through a pink curtain like Batman’s signal beaming through the sky. The cat appears to be watching from a window, possibly sneaking over the viewer’s shoulder.
A similar use of light and shadow appears in too many ideas, in which the outline of a head and torso is shown filled with overlapping images. The dreamy composition nods to the pseudoscience of phrenology, as well as the work of the Surrealists. Some of the show’s recurring motifs are depicted in the layered images inside the head, including pyramids and a sleeping figure. Little context is provided for recurring images. The pyramids seen in too many ideas appear on various objects in Haggarty interiors, from lampshades to rugs. Like a game of “I spy”, the viewer is invited to identify these moments of repetition, without there being any final meaning to analyze. The viewer is denied the satisfaction of creating a pattern or logic. Instead, the works are deliberately vague and elusive, like visual representations of a memory that changes slightly each time it’s recalled. The title of the work and the stacked images allude to submersion, but the work bears no signs of stress. On the contrary, the figure seems to methodically layer its ideas and resolves to simply have too many. The work is a welcome invitation to let the mind wander and embrace the feeling of being overwhelmed.
Along with strong references to surrealism, Haggarty also pays homage to Jasper Johns, seen, for example, with the natural wood frame she painted surrounding a cat portrait in For Penguin. Johns often painted a border or frame around his compositions, and wood grain appears in many details throughout his work. The frame of Haggarty’s painting encircles a feral cat named Penguin peeking out from behind a mysterious feline figure, possibly its shadow, or possibly one of the male cats that the artist believes loved chasing poor Penguin. The work is both moving and disturbing. A tribute to the sweet and innocent black cat who has become the artist’s companion during lockdown, there is also a sense of fear in her eyes as she gazes at the looming shadow.
The subtle reference to Johns in Haggarty’s faux frame is just one of many moments where she pays homage to the artist, as well as other great names in art history. Hints of Johns appear in Haggarty’s color choices, as well as the two artists’ mutual exploration of dreams, surreal imagery and illusion, most notably in Johns’ works of the 1980s and 90s. Johns’ recent retrospective at the Whitney, Jasper Johns: Spirit/Mirrorincluded an untitled 1990 painting of a purple sheet folded as if neatly arranged on a bed, but clothespins suggest the sheet flutters, much like the hanging curtain in Haggarty’s Kitten hunt.
Purple often appears in subtle overtones throughout Johns’ work. Haggarty also seems biased towards purple. In Babylon, she painted a dreamy figure lying on a bed in the background. In the foreground is a rug bearing a depiction of the Ishtar Gate, one of the gates to the ancient city of Babylon. Inside the door, Haggarty painted even more pyramids. An ethereal purple hue covers the scene, separated in the center as if pulled to the side. Haggarty’s piece was immediately reminiscent of the fluttering purple sheet in Johns’ painting.
While many works in the genre border on depression, Haggarty’s paintings of isolation are triumphant. They recognize our resilience and embrace our collective Groundhog Day Syndrome, the feeling of reliving the same day over and over again. They are further triumphant in their celebration of the little things that make up our lives – the relationships, the pets, the possessions that have become our companions for two years. Haggarty successfully captures the condition of interiority that defines our lives and paints a memorial to his own experience of what it means to “live”.
Living is on view through June 4 at the Geary Contemporary, 208 Bowery.
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