by Alfred Mac Adam
I'm Made of Milk
HORTON GALLERY | SEPTEMBER 6 – OCTOBER 7, 2017
Kate Groobey has rehabilitated the zany. Not that she is personally zany or that her wonderful large-scale paintings are zany, but that she has brought back to artistic life the zany, the clown, the zanni or Gianni or Giovanni of the Commedia dell'Arte. Groobey's six, large-scale paintings evoke an ancient tradition of stock types and improvised dialogue intimately linked to music and dance.
Her types are, however, her own invention. Take the milkman in the painting I'm Made of Milk (2017). He’s crudely drawn, his words are crudely drawn, and a child’s drawing effect dominates the composition. The allusion to childhood and therefore to dreams, daydreams, and fantasies, takes the viewer back to Expressionism. The Expressionists sought to disrupt the placidity of Impressionism’s shimmering optical effects and bring painting back to a social matrix. This they could only accomplish through parody and overtly unnatural color and drawing.
Kate Groobey’s work may best be understood as an appropriation of that Expressionist dynamic but linked, in her case, to a woman’s affirmation of presence within a male-dominated artistic tradition. Meaning to say that her milkman, with all his phallic and inseminating energy—those huge drops of milk he scatters around may be dangerous to your health—is actually androgynous.
We only realize this fully when we see the absolutely zany video that accompanies the show. In each sequence, Groobey dresses up as the central character in her paintings—the Milkman or the Melon man for example—and does a grotesque dance. This masking and costuming constitutes a metaphor for female artistic endeavor: to succeed you must “man-up.” But the longer we look at the figures in her video, the more androgynous or multi-sexual they become: some even have vague bosoms the images in the paintings evidently lack.
Kate Groobey's zany vision is also an argument for a new kind of gestural figuration. Beyond the gender-neutral space of total abstraction stands a vast territory women artists must appropriate and reconstitute. Groobey shows how to go about achieving that goal: humor both disarms and seduces the spectator; brilliant color draws us in. These paintings delight and teach at the same time: the Milk Person Cometh!
ContributorAlfred Mac Adam
ALFRED MAC ADAM is professor of Latin American literature at Barnard College-Columbia University. He has translated works by Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Juan Carlos Onetti, José Donoso, and Jorge Volpi, among others. He recently published an essay on the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa included in The Cambridge Companion to Autobiography.