Ongoing since 1982, Kathe Burkhart’s Liz Taylor Series has evolved into a serial performative life work that draws from traditional worldviews involving presumed emotional “truths” put forth in painting and cinema. Its graphic images cut deeply both ways — for Liz and those depicted around her; for the artist and viewers alike. In works on canvas, images of Liz Taylor drawn from film stills, press and archival sources are overlaid with singular typographic profanities to provide a seemingly vast platform in which Burkhart addresses feminist resistance, female dominance, and sexual power. Love is Just a Four-Letter Word includes works on canvas from the series ranging from 2007-2016, as well as works on paper depicting the star from 2005-2015. Her glow-in-the-dark painting “S’nuff: from the Liz Taylor Series (Ash Wednesday)” from 2016 will be installed in the gallery’s 24th Street window for day and night viewing.
This selection of works on canvas, many being shown in New York for the first time, were among the last works made in Burkhart’s Williamsburg studio before being forced out by gentrification of the neighborhood. Further narrative links are enhanced by groupings and sequencing of works such as “S’nuff: from the Liz Taylor Series (Ash Wednesday),” with “Bitch Goddess: from the Liz Taylor Series (Look magazine, 1970),” 2015, and “Biohazard: from the Liz Taylor Series,” 2016, all of which were made around the conclusion of the artist’s treatment for the Hepatitis C Virus. Works such as “Transbian: from the Liz Taylor Series (Ash Wednesday),” 2015, “Whip it Out: from the Liz Taylor Series (Reflections in a Golden Eye),” 2018, “Whore: from the Liz Taylor Series (The Only Game in Town),” 2013, “Pervert: from the Liz Taylor Series (X, Y and Z),” 2007, and “Love Diary: from the Liz Taylor Series (movie magazine cover),” 2011, all comprise representations of female deviance. The title of the exhibition makes reference to a Bob Dylan song recorded by Joan Baez in the late ‘60s, recalling a memory from her youth in West Virginia, specifically her understanding of the song’s lyrics not as a love song, but a lament for the disparity between left wing ‘movement men’ and the second wave feminist movement. Burkhart has noted of her choice of Liz Taylor that “she is the actress who always portrays herself,” a notion that figures broadly into the sense, in Burkhart’s work, that Taylor’s image is a stand-in for the artist — one who is required to perform feats of autobiography and gender, but consistently and aggressively overrules the scripts that are handed to her.
When, in hundreds of paintings, the image of Liz Taylor is invoked, a sizable register that includes her beauty is correlated with otherwise abrasive, aggressive, histrionic, and unfettered attributes to deliver a form of debasement administered through deconstructions of iconic representations of the star, combined with graphic direct addresses. Like one of her favorite Liz
Taylor movies, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Burkhart brings us foul language as a device that ruptures too-lengthy silences, deploying anti-formalist strategies to address various systems of oppression, including language. As in Edward Albee’s play, psychological sport, verbal taunting, and manipulation of power are at work; and Burkhart, as well, goes too far with the fun and games, leaving scars after uncomfortable laughter. As Gary Indiana noted of Burkhart’s Liz Taylor Series, “Deflationary of our system of illusion and manipulation, they affirm the act of making-conscious. They raise the ante of awareness beyond the perceptual fence surrounding our collective penitentiary [and] indicate our complicity with oppression of all sorts, while suggesting where its logical dead end must certainly be: the stab we deliver to ourselves, the ultimate wrong targets.”
Trained in the theoretical traditions of conceptual and feminist art, versed in ideas of deconstruction and appropriation, Burkhart’s work came of age in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, yet resisted the packaging of a period that fetishized technique and delivered a diffused form of feminist art that devolved into a representational painting style practiced by women artists, rather than manifesting transgressive potential. Remaining persistent in her visual articulation of the radical female subject, Burkhart continues to make Liz Taylor paintings that corrupt the master’s tongue with curses, as well as the master’s tools in painting, mounting a conceptual assault on the proscribed roles assigned to women. Although Burkhart makes paintings, she does not consider herself a painter. She works in a variety of interdisciplinary media, making video, installation, performance, photography, and sculpture; and writing fiction, poetry and criticism. Her performative, language-based practice, in general, comprises an accumulation of photographic and typographical research, writing alone and alongside others, and the combination and reproduction, by hand, of existing representations. Gleaning the clandestine oppositional substance that lies dormant in seemingly passive inflections, she, like writer Sissy Goforth (Liz Taylor’s character in Boom!) plays by her own rules.—Lia Gangitano
Kathe Burkhart (Dual nationalities of American and Dutch, born 1958) has had solo exhibitions at Fri Art, Kunsthalle Fribourg, Fribourg, Switzerland; MoMA PS1, New York; Participant Inc., New York; NICC, Brussels, Belgium; Cultuurcentrum Brugge, Bruges, Belgium among other venues. Her work has been shown recently in group exhibitions such as The American Dream: American Realism 1945-2017, Kunsthalle Emden, Emden, Germany; Fast Forward, Paintings from the 1980s, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; The Furious Gaze, Montehermoso Cultural Center, Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain; and 1993: NYC Experimental Jet Set Trash & No Star, New Museum, New York. Burkhart participated in the 45th Venice Biennale (1993), and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2017. Her work is included in numerous collections including The Art Institute of Chicago, Brooklyn Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art, SMAK Museum, Ghent, Belgium; and the Stedelijk Museum van Aktuele Kunst, Amsterdam. She maintains an interdisciplinary practice, having published four books of fiction, in addition to a vast collection of poetry and essays. Burkhart currently lives and works in Amsterdam and New York.