Kirsten Everberg: Life Still
1301PE & Unit 5, Los Angeles
through June 29
Written by Shana Nys Dambrot
New paintings and works on paper by Kirsten Everberg continue her career-long interest in subverting certain paradigms of art history — largely, though not exclusively, materialist ones. With previous takes on French Impressionist and Surrealist tropes, Everberg’s appreciation for the assertive physical properties of inherently entropic mediums like raw clay, old paperback books, and enamel pigment have resulted in some visceral and satisfying re-interpretations. In her latest paint-based encounters with art history, all made in 2019, Everberg has a go at the fascinating color-coded and symbol-rich tableaux of Dutch still life painting.
The artist’s most apparent updates to the conventions of compositional and subtextual formulas come in her swapping in of images of plant and animal species according to a different lexicon than that employed by the Old Masters. Rather than say, zineas or a certain color of rose, game hares, or pomegranates (okay there is one pomegranate) being stand-ins for faithfulness, children, wealth, or war, in these paintings the birds, small wildlife, insects, as well as flowering plants and foodstuffs are chosen to illustrate other narratives, culled from those designated as invasive, native, and near extinction. Dead songbirds, crouching beetles, hidden foxes and owls are arrayed within copious greenery and fecund flowers of exotic, tropical, dangerous blooms.
But her most innovative incursions into the traditions of her subject are enacted through her choices of materials, and what the properties of mediums like enamel do to the character of her style. Oil paint, with its potential for depths and brightness of color, light, shadow, somehow both diffuse and tactile, does its best work in the finely detailed passages. But when Everberg returns to her use of enamel, the action starts. The operations of chemistry and viscosity and sheen, differences of tendency to blend into gradients or stay in serious swirls, variations in intimacy with light — all of this conspires to complicate the balance of realism and abstraction to an unsettled quiver, which gives the paintings life, even the paintings of dead birds.
In the smaller works, the significance of the very few included objects takes some priority; they are so clearly deliberate, while remaining ambiguous also. In “Leopard, Queens, and Egg” an arrangement of a potted lizard, some playing cards, and a boiled egg in an ornate cup enacts the perfect studio style still life. With hints of courtly decor and a mostly black tabletop background, it teases the imagination with the mystical or folkloric or superstitious meaning of the otherwise random collection of ordinary things. Having taken the time to paint in the titles on the spines of the books stacked in “Delhi Sands and Time (Mungo Thompson)” and choose Time Magazine to top it off, one feels well compelled to note and interpret them. They include The Magic of Things and Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, and the translucent amber wings of the fly perched at the corner helps to cue the passage of time. But at the same time, the wavering meandering lines of enamel cut through the smoothness of promised surfaces, drawing attention to the object quality of the painting in itself rather than as a mere vessel of information. The feathers of the birds, the wet fur of a ferret, the crimson seeds and tan skin of the split-apart pomegranate — all are animated in the ways of expressive abstraction, with the filtered presentation of tenuous images alone tethering them to this world.
In the larger paintings, the world is very much in play — a unified field of organic and built elements, living and decaying beings occupies every iota of pictorial space. Economies of scale and tertiary, subjective palettes conjure architecture, rampant wildlife, fetid overgrowth, construction materials, and an armature of abstraction. The bright yellow square and ground that anchor the riot of pinks in “La Graciosa” form a swaggering counterpoint to the millions of petal shards and tilt-shift treetops, again reminding any viewer in doubt that they are indeed confronting a painting, a work of intention and artifice. But it also offers shady fragrant grottoes to insects and snails, and a dark expanse from which the flowers launch like fireworks.
“Western Lilies” works this way too — but with a much more pronounced architectural intervention in the picture, as a glass wall divides its pictorial space into outdoor on its far side and indoor, which we space we presumably also occupy by extension. The illusion of this is made more complete as the velvety limbs of the dozens of red flowers and yellow stalks bend outward in a near trompe-l’oeil illusion. The room however holds not only a wall clock and the suggestion of furniture, but also a sizable snake and a perched bird. The countertops and kitchen-like boards of the interior are a stack of textured rectangles just shy of abstraction, whose poetics of woodgrain, marble, formica, tile, and particle board are pure paint studies in their own right, though they do a job in the picture.
“Refugio” too makes use of the motif wherein segments of abstract texture are deployed as architecture; in this case fencing and siding. Here we seem to be on both the outside and inside, in an exterior courtyard of some kind, home to a giant chicken among other creatures. It’s got the run of the yard, but at the back gate a wolf is quite curious, and owl on the upper limbs of a pepper tree waits for dusk. The sun sets behind far, grey mountains, but inside the courtyard it is magic hour, and the dark metal of the shed takes on the stature of a cloister, and this tree catches the last of the fiery light. The gnarled limbs and enduring personality of that tree are embodied in the eccentricities of the paint and enamel medium that forms them, just as the architecture is constructed from abstraction. Like everything else, up close it all falls away.