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Kate Barbee’s Feral Flora at Kohn Gallery

Kate Barbee, The Sunroom, 2020, oil paint, stitched-canvas patches, embroidery thread, oil pastel, and cold wax on canvas, 60 x 48 in. Courtesy of the artist and Kohn Gallery.

Kate Barbee: Feral Flora

Kohn Gallery

February 5 through March 25, 2021

By LITA BARRIE, March 2021 

Kate Barbee has piqued the interest of the art world with her dynamic depictions of fragmented female bodies in vivid domestic tableaux. Few artists can meld as many painting styles and art historical references as fluidly as Barbee does because few artists have the assuredness to paint as courageously. The 26-year-old Texan, based in Los Angeles, belongs to a new wave of millennial female painters who are reinvigorating figuration through virtuosic painting that is both historically grounded and current. Barbee’s emotionally charged color palette animates dream-like paintings of her private life and emotional longings, which have struck a chord with viewers because they are unapologetically personal.  

Barbee’s first solo exhibition at Kohn Gallery, Feral Flora synthesizes the tenets of Abstract-Expressionism, Cubism and Fauvism in an idiosyncratic approach that combines craft techniques and everyday materials like embroidery thread, fabric and wax. Her large-scale atmospheric paintings of memories and fantasies were made during the pandemic lockdown. Barbee found more solitary time to examine her feelings through daily journaling, and shifted her visual focus to taking snapshots of objects in her domestic environment - furniture, ceramics and plants. 

Kate Barbee working in her studio, 2021. Courtesy of Kohn Gallery.

Barbee works on a number of large paintings simultaneously, stitching fragments cut from earlier “failed paintings” into patchwork compositions that play with tangible and intangible space. Female figures, dismembered limbs and faces appear and reappear from unexpected angles like figments of the imagination. Her key influences are referenced throughout her work: in the erotic poses of some of her female nudes (Cecily Brown), in her reclining weightless figures (Marc Chagall) and in her playful depiction of contemporary life (RB Kitaj).  However, she has created her own distinctive signature style using a patchwork of her animated brushwork and gestural lines which can change from fragmented body parts to plants or objects and vice versa.   

Viewed from a distance, the first impression of Barbee’s monumental paintings is that they have the sensual energy of Willem De Kooning’s paint-on-paint approach. It is only when viewed close up that her process is seen as entirely different, because she pieces her paintings together like jigsaw puzzles. Using fragments of discarded paintings, and even cutting around the silhouettes of heads, limbs and plants to discover new ways of looking at her original ideas by repurposing them, Barbee turns her paintings into a process of discovery she shares with the viewer. These are paintings to spend time with because they slowly reveal themselves as small worlds within larger worlds. Even the carefully measured stitches with embroidery thread add a further element of detailed patterning. This seamstress approach comes naturally from her love of couture which led Barbee to create a clothing line, Crust LA.    

Kate Barbee, Screwdriver, 2021, oil paint, stitched-canvas patches, embroidery thread, oil pastel, and cold wax on canvas, 84 x 72 in. Courtesy of the artist and Kohn Gallery.

In the exhibition centerpiece, Screwdriver, Barbee combines abstract and figurative segments in a harmony of shapes and patterns. The fluid movements between the segments keep the eye moving around, across, above and below to make visual connections, metaphoric connections and art historical connections. Two fragments of empty chairs appear to reference David Hockney’s famous exploration of a non-fixed perspective of the chairs in his studio, except Barbee’s chairs face each other as though they are in conversation with the absence of human occupants during the solitude of lockdown. Like Hockney, she abandons a fixed perspective  to play with altered perspectives and multiple vanishing points which keep the eye alive. She blurs the distinction between figure and ground and fills the entire canvas with limbs, plants and abstract elements that reach the edges.   

Barbee’s feminine perspective of a female-centered world is a reversal of centuries dominated by the male gaze and the allure women have for men. She portrays conflicted women who are self-possessed and own their sexuality, yet know their real power lies in their softness and vulnerability. Her female figures take the center stage and a bearded male figure occasionally appears in the background as a romantic fantasy. In Blue Moon, a graceful female form appears to be alone, but on closer inspection her arm is tenderly embracing a barely discernible male head behind her, although we cannot see his body - only his hands around her waist. The female character eclipses the male character, because it is her feelings that matter, not his. In Sunroom, the bearded male character is more discernible as the object of her affection but still takes a secondary position in the background. Beautiful flowers are the main visual focus because they symbolize the romantic feelings he arouses in her. But in Enlightened Woman the central female character takes control of a sexual encounter with a man she does not care about.  

It would be trite to put a feminist spin on this gender role reversal, because Barbee is not working from any manifesto; she is an intuitive artist who makes art to sort out feelings that occur naturally, and this gives her work a rare authenticity. WM 


Lita Barrie

Lita Barrie is a freelance art critic based in Los Angeles. Her writing appears in Hyperallergic, Riot Material, Apricota Journal, Painter’s Table, ArtnowLA, HuffPost, Painter’s Table, Artweek.L.A, art ltd and Art Agenda. In the 90s Barrie wrote for Artspace, Art Issues, Artweek, Visions andVernacular. She was born in New Zealand where she wrote a weekly newspaper art column for the New Zealand National Business Review and contributed to The Listener, Art New Zealand, AGMANZ, ANTIC, Sites and Landfall. She also conducted live interviews with artists for Radio New Zealand’s Access Radio. Barrie has written numerous essays for art gallery and museum catalogs including: Barbara Kruger (National Art Gallery New Zealand) and Roland Reiss ( Cal State University Fullerton). Barrie taught aesthetic philosophy at Claremont Graduate University, Art Center and Otis School of Art and Design. In New Zealand, Barrie was awarded three Queen Elizabeth 11 Arts Council grants and a Harkness grant for art criticism. Her feminist interventions are discussed in The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand and an archive of her writing is held in The New Zealand National Library, Te Puna Matauranga Aotearoa.

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