Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Lace in the Forest: the Art of Katy Horan


I first saw Katy Horan's art at her 2008 "Into the Deep Dark" show at Anno Domini and was immediately fascinated by her folkart-inspired paintings. True to the show's name, these paintings seemed to depict the women of some ancient, isolated society living in a deep, dark forest. The images so captivated me that to this day they come to mind when I walk in the woods.

The women in paintings such as Decoration and When the Horned Maidens Gather (below) are engaged in "womanly" crafts (quilting, sewing, crocheting, etc), but there is nothing delicate about these activities. They are in the woods, surrounded by animals. However, they are at ease, looking relaxed and comfortable in their warm, handmade garments as they go about their tasks. They are at one with nature and have nothing to fear from it.

When the Horned Maidens Gather

Which isn't to say these are gentle, pastoral scenes. The trees look foreboding. There are no green groves or fields of flowers. There are bears, skulls, and labor. A society of women, communing with animals, performing secret rituals - such an idea has long been a source of both fascination and fear for patriarchal societies, seen in ancient Greece's interest in all-female nature cults, the Puritanical terror of witch covens, and endless fantasies about Amazons. This "darker" femininity is especially evident in paintings like When the Moon Is Full, Feather Magic, Crystal Magic, and Blood (below). Here we have knives and nudity that doesn't care about the male gaze. Womanhood is not just about gentle crafts but blood and survival. That these works are on wood augments the feeling that these woman are hardy and natural.

Blood was my first "real" art purchase (and in other words...a large percentage of my art collection). It depicts two woman: one a young woman wearing a fox mask, the other a slightly older woman wearing a buffalo mask. They are at different stages of their lives, but united by the common blood of their womanhood.


While still exploring femininity and the intricate patterns she's become known for, Horan hasn't gotten stuck in a rut. Around 2009, she moved away from painting full scenes of ritual, instead focusing on single figures represented by synecdoche or otherwise abstracted, obscured by or composed of volumes of lace. The lace is delicate (and painted on paper instead of wood) and yet perhaps monstrous in how it seems to consume the figures. These works also show a slightly different color palette for her. In her earlier work, browns and taupe are the predominant colors, with brick red and pale yellows often seen in fire or the women's clothes. With its dusky blue, green, and salmon against the black and white, this lace is livelier than you'd expect. 


More recently, Horan has lessened the abstraction of her figures slightly and moved into grays and whites. These seem to be older women, closed off from the world. Their lace coverings hide bodies and keep secrets, but also express beauty and skill. A single lace veil or doily would be fragile and ephemeral, but with layers upon layers they form something substantial. The "spinsters" of this series might be alone, but they are also resilient. I definitely recommend looking at the larger pictures on Horan's website, because the detail in the Horan's painting of the lacework is stunning with its precise patterns and subtle white-on-white layers.

Spinster 3

It's been interesting to watch Horan's work mature. As different as the more recent paintings are from her paintings from just a few years ago, they all feel connected, as if part of a growing thesis on womanhood and an on-going self-challenge of skill. I'm eager to see what direction she'll take with her art next.

 Horan and her work at 2011's "Bloom & Gloom" show at Swarm Gallery.

Image Info:
Photographs of Blood and Bloom & Gloom show mine; all others from Katy Horan's website.

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