Luscious And Eccentric

Karen Heagle’s lesbian camp and also a new departure in poignancy

“Strictly Naturals,” Karen Heagle’s solo exhibition at I-20 Gallery, allows us into a painter’s practice at a crucial junction. Known for her funny, slapdash paeans to queer pop icons, Heagle has been toiling for a few years within the self-conscious genres of “bad painting” and “slacker art.” Her current exhibition beautifully inaugurates I-20’s new space and finds her in a more historical and perhaps introspective mood.

“Strictly Naturals” might be loosely divided into two subsets—pictures of mass media icons such as Lara Croft, Stringer Bell, and icons of Western Painting, including saints, bathers, and landscapes. In the first group, Heagle returns to the figures we have come to know her by, further delving into notions of queer subjectivity and the artist as lesbian fan. Portraits of androgynous celebrities such as Jude Law, Dave Navarro, and Angelina Jolie are painted with a hammy, Neo-Expressionist bravura. Tender girly boys and sexy bad-ass girls have an ardent presence that firmly locates them in the realm of lesbian camp.

The paintings that comprise the second set point to an important shift in both Heagle’s content and her technical chops. “Bather Bitten By Snake,” is a gorgeous painting of a nude intently studying her wound as a snake slithers off-frame.

Graphic outlines, a trademark that Heagle uses to both define and flatten forms, become charged with meaning and energy as they pulsate around the bather’s warm, fleshy body.

In “Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian (Bound Man),” the normally kitschy distortions in Heagle’s drawing gain a new poignancy as a young man offers up his elongated body as sacrifice. Heagle rightly declares a powerful aesthetic and symbolic allegiance to the great Suzanne Valadon as well as the sentimental, pin-up paintings of Francis Picabia.

Although Heagle is primarily known as a figure painter, it is in her still-lives that she really shines as a painter. In “Turkey,” a “dumb” composition sets off the rich, gestural tactility of bird’s body, the physicality of the paint surface mirroring the artist’s keen interest in the materiality of world.

In “Low Tide At Rialto Beach 4 (Entangled Starfish),” two starfish seem on the verge of getting swept off the top of the image and out to sea. The anthropomorphic forms are strangely affecting due to their slippery placement on the unstable picture plane and the vivid paint handling.

It’s always a thrill to watch an artist reach a new plateau in her work. I look forward to seeing many more of Karen Heagle’s luscious, eccentric paintings.

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