A wrinkle in the macula – The Brooklyn Rail
as it is
A wrinkle in the macula
From July 30 to September 10, 2022
Katy Crowe’s work has long been regarded with immense esteem among artists who appreciate her improvisation, richly layered abstractions, intricate sense of color and impressive mastery of materials. He is a painter painter, but like the careers of Suzan Frecon, Harriet Korman and Stanley Whitney, the visibility of a painter painter is often delayed. Crowe’s show, titled A wrinkle in the maculais a brilliant reset.
His concise installation includes five paintings, four uniformly sized, 52 by 40 inches (all 2022), plus the smallest Beyond (2019), all oil on linen. They exude a so-called facility. Edges are prominent, imperfect, and emphatically hand-drawn, revealing previous color and placement solutions, with surfaces that flourish as if just finished. Like Suzan Frecon, Crowe generates her own formulas, delivering a craftsmanship that embodies the history and power of oil paint as a medium. For Crowe, the notion of depth is both literal and metaphorical. Glazes and luminous color create a transparent surface, a shallow scenic space in which a succession of flat geometric shapes explore momentary tableau formations. Like piercing the fourth wall of the theatre, Crowe’s wobbly geometry doubles as an allegory of a rational structure but also of its undocking. Drifting and animated, the circles float through the planes of space, often connecting like a chain. Wherever the circles intersect, an oblique lenticular shape occurs, creating an almost drawn “eyeball” shape. And like its title, A wrinkle in the macula suggests, these orbs could also be eyes. The ability to infuse subjective experience into abstract form is one of the marvels of Crowe’s work, whether, as in previous works, it is the hourglass shapes of black widow spiders that nest at the back of the studio (“these girls” as the artist called them), the light in Cairo or, currently, the feelings of despair in the face of recent political and world events.
The grid ghost keeps Crowe’s brushstroke on point, echoing the linen with slightly crisscrossing vertical and horizontal strokes. This consistency underpins its audacious range of viscosities, from damp, just set strokes to rough, dry brushed bursts. In Tartaurus (2022) a solvent-bitten translucent vertical band hangs like a curtain in front of a dry brushed net of rust on purple. The same draped pattern occurs in Elysium (2022) but like a grove of blurry black lines, punctuating a rising violet sphere. Crowe draws pleasure and innuendo from his sophisticated improvisation, the illusion that it all happens in one take, without revisions.
In Asphodel (2022), three circles meet, eclipse and reflect each other. The upper circle drifts up and forward, revealing traces of an original red oxide washed with Egyptian violet blue. Crowe skillfully uses the weight of color, and this circle is heavy and loaded with deep pigment, implying a sense of gravity. Below, a slate gray circle dematerializes into a possible shadow or reflection. In Erebus (2022), the circles do not touch or bind, but meet with an almost comical intensity. Crowe resists fixed interpretations with flippant expansion.
Crowe’s visual mind invites the viewer to follow his clues. Four paintings have titles taken from Greek mythology of the afterlife: Asphodel, Elysium, Erebus, and Tartarus, respectively. This, plus its exhibition title, A wrinkle in the macula, brought me to Anthony Synnott’s essay “The Eye and Me: A Sociology of Sight” (1992). Synnott traces the roots of our eye-centric culture to the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, who posited sight as the primary and most objective sense. However, it also relates the inverse relationship between seeing and knowing – seeing may be believing, but knowledge is cultural, incremental and only comes with time. When a wrinkle in the macula occurs, vision is distorted, blurred, sharp details are lost. Crowe’s paintings suggest the instability of our assumptions and the powerlessness of vision as a barometer of reality.
Like Guston’s last work head and bottle (1975), the shapes of the eyes take on a sense of the absurd à la Beckett and dismantle purity as a principle of abstraction. Although Crowe’s paintings remain resolutely abstract, an evocation of instant lucidity and speculative wonder occurs in her process, a lightness of being that she has honed over more than four decades.