Caitlin Keogh: Headless Woman with Parrot, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 96 by 72 inches; at Bortolami.

Who edits the Harper’s Magazine “Readings” section? The publication’s masthead doesn’t say, but I like to imagine that it’s a single person with exquisite and wide-ranging taste. He or she collects an array of literary clippings under the subheadings “Dialogue,” “Prescriptions,” “Fiction,” and, ironically, “Confession,” among others. The juxtapositions—an excerpt from a romance novel paired with a portion of a court transcript, for example—don’t necessarily convey an opinion; rather, the editor’s selections reflect a sharp wit and knowing attitude about various cultural strata.  

Caitlin Keogh’s exhibition “Loose Ankles,” a selection of large paintings and mixed-medium works on mirror, shared this sensibility, as it seemed to give visual form to a rich, eclectic imagination. Repeating Autobiography (all works 2016) depicts four copies of Christian Dior’s autobiography, Dior by Dior. Rendered in shallow space on the seven-foot-tall canvas, the books appear to be falling vertically with their front and back covers flapping open to reveal salmon-colored endpapers. Keogh’s bold, graphic style shares much with the visual vocabulary of sign painting and wallpaper, but Repeating Autobiography also feels dynamic, with the serial arrangement of the books resembling the structure of a filmstrip. Distributed across the painting, illusionistic rips appear to open up the picture’s surface, revealing irregular shapes in tarnished gold. (The smaller-scale works on mirror repeat this effect, but with actual torn sheets of paper, painted with fragments of the Dior text, covering the reflective supports.) The trompe l’oeil quality underscores the illusionism inherent in representational painting, and, given the work’s literary theme, alludes to the tropes and conventions that operate in autobiography to convey a sense of self.   

Headless Woman with Parrot is a riff on Courbet’s 1866 succès de scandale, Woman with a Parrot. In Keogh’s adaptation, which is made to appear like a woven composition, Courbet’s woman reaching toward a parrot has become a headless gray female mannequin, its body cut in half at the torso. Magritte’s The Red Model (1936) seems to have inspired the exhibition’s title work, Loose Ankles. A pair of severed feet wearing mustard-colored high heels are tied to a hand smoking a cigarette. Smoke wafts and lingers, giving the painting a listless air, incredulous and bemused. 

In Renaissance Painting, Keogh takes on a wider swath of art history. Despite the title, the painting seems most closely related to self-portraits by Frida Kahlo. Organs adorn a piece of armor engineered to accommodate a female bust. Most of the anatomical parts are blown-up fragments of other organs (e.g., the bronchi from the lungs). Keogh’s depictions, with the organs outlined in black, hover between biomorphic abstraction and precise scientific renderings. Here, she brings the inside out, creating a tension between vulnerability and protection. Like many of the canvases on view, Renaissance Painting reflects her shrewd and generous approach to art history, and her penchant for engaging complex and often difficult representations of femininity. Just as an erudite Harper’s editor pores through texts with an eye honed for “Readings,” Keogh presented a group of images that feel like the visual equivalent of a salon conversation.