By JAMES D. CAMPBELL May, 2020
“Rationalists, wearing square hats,
Think, in square rooms,
Looking at the floor,
Looking at the ceiling.
They confine themselves
To right-angled triangles.
If they tried rhomboids,
Cones, waving lines, ellipses --
As, for example, the ellipse of the half-moon --
Rationalists would wear sombreros.”
-- Wallace Stevens, “Six Significant Landscapes”
“One place understood helps us understand all places better.”
-- Eudora Welty
The simple, selfless stoicism and haunting cadenced silences of Kathryn Keller’s landscapes and interiors evoke the South in all its richness and with something like earthy rapture. She dilates on our relationship with Nature with eloquent understatement and unrivalled technical finesse. That the poet Wallace Stevens was a fellow traveller in this respect is clear from the poem excerpted above in which he touches upon our relationship with Nature with righteous lucidity and humour.
Indeed, the sixth “significant” landscape of Stevens’ Six Significant Landscapes is an insouciant romp with its image of a philosopher wearing a sombrero, having left rationalism behind for the intuitive fluency of poetic thinking. Keller is a supremely intuitive artist who reads – and renders -- the Book of Nature in similarly arresting, non-rational ways.
Keller’s interiors and landscapes bespeak humility and understatement. Her interiors often focus on the contents of her own studio spaces, with loving fidelity, as an incubator of her visions and a full platter of her materials, instruments and supports. In this regard, she reminds me of Michael Merrill, the Montreal-based representational painter who has used his own studio as creative alembic for establishing the primacy of the imagination over reality these last many years.
In her Ides of March (2019, oil on canvas the orderly assortment of brushes and bottled oils and paints is a tasty invocation of her studio life. In A Storm Approaching (2015, oil on gessoed paper) the suggestive torpor in the upper atmosphere and the delineation of the house in Inglewood House (2016, oil on paper) enjoy an unlikely radical equivalence. The house as guarantor of security and sanctity, for instance in her Inglewood 11-19-18 (watercolor on paper), is counterpoised with the forbidding grey trees seen from within the window, Her palette is sumptuous yet restrained, her mark-making like breathing. Long and short exhalations of pigment summon up her circumstances and surrounds with diaphanous passages that carry the viewer along with them into the heart of perceived and remembered place.
Keller paints from Inglewood Farm in Alexandria, Louisiana, at the geographic centre of the State and of the South. She is a child of her region, but she has spent time in El Dorado, Arkansas, went to college in Tennessee at the University of the South, studied at the Arkansas Art Center, lived in NYC for a period of time with her first husband, raised her kids and spent a lot of time in New Orleans in the Garden District of New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina she settled back full time in Alexandria, Louisiana.
The flat land thereabouts is riddled with nodes of remembered place, ritual emplacement, familial investiture, love. It is here that Keller feels most at home, even when she limns painting with the surpassing strangeness of the everyday. Her optic moves restlessly across the full array of what is seen in those places. Her watercolors are tremulous enclosures suffused with a soft luminosity, tactual and true. Keller seizes upon a room and invests it with a porous ligature of pure light. She exerts a transient ownership over things seen, the living tapestry of the South, and communicates it with something like love.
Her gaze is attracted by groves of trees, disturbances in the atmosphere, the comforts of home. That she is the product of her environment is clear from her loving dilation on its particularities as they come under her purview. Keller is a painter of deft and simple means, and her selfless stoicism always shines through, a beacon of truth and perseverance. We have no doubt that this artist’s familiarity with and love for Southern place and remembered place is deep, sustaining and true.
Walker Percy, in The Moviegoer, said: “Nobody but a Southerner knows the wrenching rinsing sadness of the cities of the North.” Keller remains a scion of Southern place, and palpates with genuine joy the inherent magic of the land with the casual authority of her own hands. All her teeming relationships with specific places are layered there in her work, and the depth and duration of those relationships are as important to her as the physical sites themselves.
If she puts paint to place, Keller also paints refuge. Her houses, so lovingly adumbrated, enjoy great quiet and a sense of erotic melancholy that draws the viewer inwards. Keller is no narcissist or show-off. Still, the amplitude of mood in her work is such that it casts a widening net that effortlessly catches us up, offering a gratifying emotional experience that transcends all the trappings of the built world.
Keller’s paintings have been called elegiac, but the elegiac strains in her work never reach the level of outright or strident lamentation. Perhaps because she is a believer in place and its sanctity, commemoration and celebration. Notably, she is also one allergic to dramatic license for its own sake. One commentator noted a family resemblance with the cemetery scenes of Louisiana photographer and pioneer Surrealist Clarence John Laughlin. To embody silence meaningfully is surely no mean feat. Keller is able to do so with understatement and brio -- and without resorting to needless plangency or rationalistic excess. To return to the poem by Wallace Stevens, we would not be surprised to find that Keller wears a sombrero both in and out of her studio.
Kathryn Keller whole oeuvre is a profound meditation on place. What does it mean to be a Southerner? What does it mean to luxuriate in those landscapes as natural to you as your own flesh jacket? She would surely agree with Eudora Welty “Beauty is not a means, not a way of furthering a thing in the world. It is a result; it belongs to ordering, to form, to aftereffect.” Keller has shown she can excavate an ennobling measure of beauty from the landscapes of her present and past to exalting effect. As Welty also once said: “One place understood helps us understand all places better.” Keller’s remarkable landscapes make us understand the restless nomenclature of all places better, but those of the South particularly when it is understood as a small paradigm of the terrestrial paradise. WM
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Kathryn Keller is represented by LeMieux Galleries in New Orleans, Louisiana. In 2021 LeMieux Galleries is doing a two-person show with Keller and the artist Shirley Rabe Masinter. The show will open January 8th, 2021 and will run through Saturday, February 27th 2021. To see works that are currently available at LeMieux Galleries check out the link below.
Kathryn Keller is also represented by The The Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art in Charlotte, North Carolina. To see available works at the gallery click the link below.
Kathryn Keller is also represented by Moremen Gallery in Louisville, Kentucky. To see available works click the link
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James D. Campbell is a curator and writer on art based in Montreal. The author of over 150 books and catalogues on art, he contributes essays and reviews to Frieze, Border Crossings and other publications.