San Francisco Bay Area artist Katherine Sherwood continues to paint flowing abstractions that are both graceful and meditative. Her show, Sephora, is filled with signature paintings that weave together modern medicine and medieval mysticism.
Blue Pine Box is the most successful composition in the show. Sherwood painted the large-scale square canvas in cream, olive green, slate blue, and red-brown, highlighted with a jarring bold orange. On a background textured with thick strokes of dirty white paint, details of an angiogram of her brain are enlarged to more than one-third of the size of the canvas. Dark brown blood vessels sweep in waves across the lower right of the painting and cluster there in two identical knots, each about the size of an adult head. A large, hard-edged block of dark gray paint also rests on the bottom edge of the canvas. Paint swirls in loops and globs over the angiogram and gray block. The streams of earthy color filling the lower regions weigh the painting down, tethering it to the ground. Creamy white paint gently trails through some of the empty upper canvas, and a maroon cross reaches upwards out of the tumult, its head and arms almost anthropomorphic. The contrast of the full, many-colored, closed forms against the empty white space set apart cacophony from silence and earthboundedness from transcendence.
Sherwood painted Blue Pine Box in 2002 after her friend and colleague, Wendy Sussman, died of cancer. She used the canvas and stretchers left in Sussman’s studio for images dealing with her own grief. The square format of Sussman’s canvases was new to Sherwood. Once we learn the story, a heavy coffin being lowered into the earth and the specter of a freed soul rising above it seem to appear in the abstraction, but fortunately, such a heavy-handed reading of the painting is not necessary to enjoy the work. In the other two paintings dedicated specifically to Sussman, Little Brown Birds, and (the eponymous) Sephora, Sherwood uses Sussman’s blue palette as well as her format. At the time she was painting these saturated blues, Sussman was dealing with the deaths of both of her parents. Sherwood gives up her pretty pastel pinks and rotting greens and borrows Sussman’s watery range of hues that swirl around the viewer as if we are caught in an undertow.
The most poignant moments in the show happen when Sherwood begins to expand her vocabulary. One heart-rending passage in Little Brown Birds consist of four enlargements of the same angiogram. Sherwood paints over parts of the images with dark gray paint. The resulting arrangement leaves four brain-shaped circles crisscrossed with blood vessels. Thick arteries link the circles to one another like squiggly umbilical cords, recalling the exposed blood vessels joining women’s hearts in Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits.
Another fruitful development in Sherwood’s images is her digitization of the angiograms. In a few of her paintings, she enlarges medical images so that we can see the individual pixels distinctly. This fragmentation throws the readability of the pictures of her brain into confusion. The pixels remind us that the angiograms do not show Sherwood’s actual brain, but a representation of it processed by a computer.
All of Sherwood’s paintings focus on her juxtaposition of angiograms of her brain and the seals of Solomon, medieval mystical seals invoking spiritual powers. Sherwood began painting over angiograms of the blood vessels in her brain after she suffered a brain hemorrhage in 1997. When she first saw the angiograms in her doctor’s office, they reminded her of the trees in her favorite Sung Dynasty landscape paintings, so she asked to take the images home. The stroke paralyzed her dominant right side, but she has learned to paint left-handed by pouring the paint over canvases she lays out horizontally on her old bedstead. The paint encrusts the canvas with thick, cracking layers, the tactility of the surfaces emphasizing the physicality of Sherwood’s process.
Critics have barely scratched the surface of Sherwood’s layering of biomedical and magical imagery. Her images navigate complex territories between medicine and magic, corporeality and spirituality, luck and providence, and disability and ability. Sherwood perseveres in probing her body and her soul through medical imaging and spiritual magic. The Philadelphia show suggests that Sherwood’s form and content run the risk of becoming an empty signature style if she overuses her motif. As long as she continues to deepen her vocabulary, however, we may look forward not only to more of her sensual beauty, but also to more of her stimulating musings on the physical and spiritual experiences of our bodies.
Sephora is on view at Locks Gallery, 600 Washington Square South, Philadelphia, PA. For more information, call (215) 629-1000 or visitwww.locksgallery.com.