Arts

Art review

Flattening time’s tides; a ‘Maid’ made in the shade

Above: Allison Katz’s “Diary w/o Dates” at the List Visual Arts Center.
photos by Peter Harris Studio
Above: Allison Katz’s “Diary w/o Dates” at the List Visual Arts Center.

Dear Diary,

Can I confess? I’m both annoyed and beguiled by an art show about, well, diaries. 

You mark the passage of time in a manner as orderly and dependable as the sun. Yet what you record is anything but orderly and dependable. Dear Diary, you are a mess of confusions, discoveries, and surreal dreamscapes. You are a cherished mirror of my psyche, with a tiresomely ruminative refrain. 

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“Allison Katz: Diary w/o Dates,” on view at the MIT List Visual Arts Center through July 29, is like you in many ways – sometimes lovely, sometimes struggling. Katz begins with a structure marking time’s tick-tock: 12 paintings, all of the same ample size. They are an unpredictable tide of images and styles that assail the structure and yet praise its existence. The container gives shape to the tide. 

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Yet it’s the container I find irksome. It’s more a clever idea, a high concept, if you will, than an organic, pressing matter. The project reads as if the idea came first, and the material sometimes struggles to justify it. Katz doesn’t address time’s terrors — claustrophobic deadlines, aging and mortality, tedium.

This show was originally installed at Oakville Galleries, in Oakville, Ontario, on the outer walls of a dodecahedron, a 12-sided structure. Each painting was just beyond view of the next. That element of surprise would, I imagine, have made each encounter fresher, deeper, more dizzying. 

Here the surreal and mythic paintings hang mostly along one wall on either side of the gallery’s picture windows. You can take them in with one long glance. Diary, is that really how we want to envision our days?

Calendars keep society in sync. Katz nods to the French Republican calendar, which for a time during and after the French Revolution employed 10-day weeks, three-week months, and nature-themed names for months. Brits spoofed the last with adjectives that now recall Snow White’s dwarfs: Slippy, Drippy, Nippy. Katz taps that list for her titles.

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She likens the calendar’s blank grid to the supports of an empty canvas, or what you and I might equate to a page awaiting the pen, but it’s in unspooling another calendrical trope that she finds her juiciest themes: young women appearing above the fold as paragons of ripeness. Here, rather than in her meditation on time, Katz’s work finds traction.

The difference, Diary, between a pin-up calendar and you is that the pin-up objectifies women. You are a pen-and-ink record of a woman’s internal experience. Katz leaps into this breach. That’s what makes the paintings mysterious and charming — dare I say, feminine? 

Most of them feature female figures, often ghostly. In “Slippy,” a spectral woman coalesces from snow falling on an urban terrace. The dreamy blue monochrome “Wheaty,” with a girl in a toga harvesting wheat, refers to the classically garbed women in the French Republican calendar.

My favorite, “Sweety,” substitutes a pear for a woman. Katz brackets the sensuous fruit abstractly, with pendulous flat green shapes masked by striped columns. Slender red leaves scatter over the canvas. The painting volleys between depth and surface, volume and flatness, flesh and its depiction. You can almost taste that pear. “Sweety” is a bare-bones rendering of an object of desire, one not complicated by subjectivity. 

In “Heaty,” Katz frames a pricklier picture of desire from inside a mouth: a nude with no facial features but her own toothy mouth. Her body is available like the pear, but her face, where we might read her true self, is largely withheld.

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The calendar grid and the pin-up flatten tides of time and the feminine into simple things we think we know. Katz’s paintings insist that we don’t. They are sometimes enlightening and sometimes messy. So, Diary, are the days of our lives.

An image from Carissa Rodriguez’s video, “The Maid,” which focuses on Sherrie Levine’s sculpture “Newborn,” cast in sandblasted glass in 1993 and 1994.
Peter Harris Studio
An image from Carissa Rodriguez’s video, “The Maid,” which focuses on Sherrie Levine’s sculpture “Newborn,” cast in sandblasted glass in 1993 and 1994.

 Carissa Rodriguez’s mesmerizing video, “The Maid,” also at the List, embraces art’s constancy as lives, movements, and technologies come and go.

The 12-minute video focuses on Sherrie Levine’s sculpture “Newborn,” cast in sandblasted glass in 1993 and 1994. “Newborn” reprises Constantin Brancusi’s 1915 marble sculpture, “Le Nouveau Né,” a sleek, ovoid form with a fold and an indentation, which he later remade in bronze, marble, and stainless steel. 

“I never make reproductions,” Brancusi insisted, positioning each as new. Then along came Levine, who regularly appropriates art-historical patrimony to explode the romantic idea of male authorship. 

Rodriguez follows the course of a day from sunrise to sunset, visiting editions of Levine’s sculptures in collectors’ homes, at auction houses, and in museum storage rooms where gloved hands tenderly unwrapped them. They look oracular. Perhaps eternal.

Indeed, first Brancusi’s work and now Levine’s hold magnetic value as art, and only travel in certain echelons of society. In “The Maid,” one sits on a table between two photos of its owner and Clintons: Bill, in the 1990s, and Hillary, more recently. The video ends with the camera outside a window of a New York apartment building on a snowy day; we see a maid move to dust the windowsill. I thought of the transparent woman in the snow in Katz’s “Slippy,” but Rodriguez aims at invisibility brought on by class more than gender.

Rodriguez positions the video amid two other works. A series of silver gelatin prints made this year, “All the Best Memories are Hers,” depicts embryos, and a video the artist shot in 1997, “The Girls,” captures children playing in New York’s Chinatown. 

Those girls are now grown, and if we’re talking about value, the cost of living in Chinatown has gone up, real estate is out of reach, and embryos are their own kind of capital. Katz considers time, women, and society, and Rodriguez, time, art, and wealth. Both inevitably circle back to beauty and desire. I suppose all art does.

ALLISON KATZ: DIARY W/O DATES

CARISSA RODRIGUEZ: THE MAID

At MIT List Visual Arts Center, 20 Ames St., Cambridge, through July 29. 617-253-4680, listart.mit.edu

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.