Matthew Timmons reviews Katie Herzog’s Librariana in Art Week 2.20.09

Katie Herzog at Circus Gallery

That artist Katie also works as an assistant reference librarian should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen the artist’s work over the past few years. Herzog’s debut show, at Circus Gallery, Librariana, presents a wide range of paintings and mixed-media works including phone books woven into metal mesh, several images of books in stacks and of others arranged neatly on shelves, and canvases mutilated and manipulated in various ways.

Libraries are often the site and subject of Herzog’s paintings and shelves of book figure in the foreground or background in many of her canvases. In a number of works from 2006 to 2007, she explores the library as a setting for shadow puppet shows, such as Wolf Shadow (2006), or for weddings such as Library Wedding (2006) or as the stage for a children’s revolution in Today the Library was Ripped a New Asshole (2007). Though many of her paintings represent flashes of introspective, raucous or celebratory narrative, Herzog’s show at Circus Gallery marks a certain transition away from narrative representation.

Information is the principle subject of Herzog’s most recent work. In the painting Dead Coyotes on a Fence (2008), she shows one way to send a message that coyotes aren’t welcome on your farm, by killing a few and hanging them on the fence; the picture ostensibly conveys information directly to other coyotes. More characteristically, Morley Wiley Branch (2007) depicts a precarious pile of book on a similarly unstable background. Short messages on the edges of books in the foreground evoke middle school while the background is reminiscent of Klimt’s mosaic-like decoration – the sacred and profane juxtaposed in a single image. Herzog’s work often reveals two or more central subjects hidden beneath the surface. In the ecstatically painted Freedom (Richard Stallman Folk Dancing) (2008), something similar occurs in the realization that the title “Freedom” refers to Richard Stallman’s folk dancing as much as to his role as founder of the Free Software Foundation.

Herzog’s use of bright colors in the Stallman painting is evidence of one of her palettes, while another is apparent in the earthier late ’70s brown and green shades of Untitled (2008). In this painting, Herzog uses dark yarn woven into the canvas to create a highly textured image of a young woman’s back; she is seen from a short distance as she wanders into the wilderness. In the diptych War of the Worlds (2008), a darkened narrative scent is set against a rich and luminous netwokr of leaves and pine boughs; the contrast between Herzog’s two palettes can be seen as the central subject of the work.

Herzog’s two palettes combine in a less oppositional manner in Whittier Public Library (2008). An orderly line of books on a shelf is rendered in ecstatic colors while the colors in the rest of the painting allude, with a sense of nostalgia, both to a faded age and to our current era. Perspective shifts into multiple vanishing points as light streaming through the windows of a dated looking library, painted in a bright yet cool white, slightly tinged by gold and suggestive of the look and color of the information age.

While it is not unusual, in this era, to take  information itself as subject matter, Herzog’s use of color, her practice of cutting up canvases to piece them back together and of literally weaving into canvas offers a welcome variation on the theme. In Phonebooks (2008), an image of two shelves of phonebooks is woven from colored yarn on a metal lath. While the central metaphor of information science is the web we weave, Herzog’s woven and unraveling image suggests he paradoxes inherent in ever shifting technologies. While various phonebooks are still delivered to our door, most people have found other ways to access information and dump the phonebook directly into the recycling bin.

Herzog’s work in Librariana shows an artist reinventing methods. The late ’70s look of her darker palette has given way to, or at least been tempered by, the ecstatic colors she has increasingly used. One work, apparently the last Herzog made for this show, is a speaker box/light box woven from speaker wire and twine. The title, The Fierce Urgency of Now (2008), seems an apt declaration to sum up the ideas and sentiments expressed throughout Librariana.

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