Recent exhibitions of feminist art have been more notable for their political concerns than their aesthetic quality. The art establishment’s historical biases are a legitimate field of inquiry, and content may distinguish the male gaze from the female gaze, but formal aesthetic qualities are universal, even genderless, in their appeal. The figurative paintings by Katherine Doyle recently shown at Gallery Henoch are clearly feminine because of their autobiographical references, but their visual appeal is universal.
Self-Portrait with Guy (2006) invites us to speculate on the nature of the relationship between the artist, shown standing at her easel and looking directly at us, and the horizontal torso of a man whose figure is obscured behind a drawing board, his legs entangled with a strange variety of brightly colored objects, tools, bottles, scarves, artist’s supplies and a sinister-looking, de Chirico-style latex yellow glove at the edge of the table in the foreground. We know he is also an artist because, in his left hand, he holds three paintbrushes. There are a great many other objects and codings to be considered, including a rather good pencil portrait of a young male tacked to the board shielding the identity of the male artist. Is it he? Giorgio de Chirico comes again to mind with the semi-abstract arrangements of wooden forms, tables, easels, stacked wooden frames and, glimpsed through a window, apartment-building towers silhouetted against the night sky, which add a surreal quality. Doyle explains that her compositions are the result of “an intuitive rather than a rational process…an amalgam of imagination and whisperings from the unconscious.” The situation in this painting is intriguing and invites further speculation about, for example, the psychology of studio dynamics. Ultimately, however, as in a work by de Chirico or Edward Hopper, the mystery lies within the beautiful formal arrangements of shape, color and line.
The most successful work in the exhibition is Three Women on a Yellow Blanket (2006). The women are seen from above, sunbathing on a field of green grass. The blanket is essentially a large square shape of hot yellow, transformed by subtle juxtapositions of the cool and warm colors of their clothes. The artist has dramatically slanted the yellow blanket so that it cuts diagonally across the almost square shape of the canvas, creating a tilted square within a square, much like a Russian Constructivist composition. Doyle may be inspired by dreams, but she is very rational when it comes to creating shapes that lock the overall composition into place. The red purse at the lower left, resting where the yellow blanket and the green grass meet, prevents the viewer’s eye from slipping off the canvas and draws it clockwise back to the orange dress worn by one of the sleeping women. The blue shadows on the yellow blanket subtly repeat the blue jeans on the second woman and visually integrate the yellow blanket and green grass. Some details are too much like illustration, such as the open eyes of the third woman. Doyle might take advantage of a subliminal theme such as Hopper’s sunlight. There is always something unnerving and existential about his sunny scenes. Yet Doyle’s approach to the human figure is straightforward and vigorous; like Hopper, she is intent on subordinating its formal qualities to the aesthetic and psychological demands of the entire composition.
Doyle studied art at the University of Louvain, Belgium, and at the American University, Washington, D.C. Since 1982 she has had ten solo shows and been featured in over seventy-five group exhibitions. Her work is found in a number of permanent collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, Verona, Italy, the Mutual Life Insurance Company of New York and United Technologies, Hartford, Connecticut. In 2005 she was awarded a Fellowship from the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts, where she presently resides with her husband. Gallery Henoch, 555 W. 25th Street, New York, New York. Telephone (917) (305)-0003. On the Web at www.galleryhenoch.com