by Gabrielle Selz
While contemplating the elements for her new exhibition at the Catharine Clark Gallery, Katherine Vetne told herself a story. She imagined an opulent dinner party with crystal goblets on a fancy claw-footed Victorian table surrounded by formal chairs. Hunting trophies, displayed against decorative wallpaper, hung on the walls. Slowly, the scene transformed, and a sinister undertone crept in. She noticed a meat tenderizer on the table. The damask tablecloth, magnified under a glass cake knife, revealed not a typical Jacquard pattern but a panorama of death and butchery during the Napoleonic wars. Then, the highlight of the evening, a strange dessert arrived, a monstrous cake that began to contort and dissolve before her guest’s eyes.
Welcome to Palate Cleanser, an exhibition of sculpture, metalpoint and drawing — a gothic banquet of animated art objects, dreamlike apparitions, and surreal distortions that serve as a reality check amid a holiday season of excess and overindulgence.
Vetne’s exquisite metalpoint drawing technique dates to the Renaissance. It’s a slow process involving repeated applications of gesso chalk to canvas and sanding the final layer achieve a satin surface. Onto this creamy plane, she draws with a stylus tipped in gold and silver that leaves metallic traces behind in the grooves. The resulting drawings, especially those made with gold, move between the linear and the luminous.
Vetne’s practice is as meticulous and refined as the accouterments of privilege she portrays. Embracing the history of Vanitas painting, where rendered objects symbolized the tension between life and death, Vetne’s still-lifes are contemplations of our culture’s obsession with material wealth. In the dreamlike The Centerpiece, a vase of tulips quivers and shakes like a multiple-exposure photo, the flowers shifting between states of being, revealing hints of Cézanne, Dali, and even Disney. Bobbing and dancing, they project giant smudged shadows on the wall behind them, looking as if they are blooming and dying.
Vetne grew up in the quaint New England town of Newburyport, Mass. surrounded by privilege. Her drawings interrogate her absorption with the trappings of entitlement and their value as class signifiers. They suggest her fascination and unease with the circumstances into which she was born. As a result, everything in this show appears unsettled. Consider The Game, an overturned Victorian table. Occupying the center of the room, it consists of 12 legs distending into the air like tentacles. Nearby, elaborately carved shelves holding melted lead crystal candelabras adorn the walls. While these pieces are part of the broader narrative construct of Palate Cleanser, I longed for the exquisite detail Vetne brings to her drawings.
A good example is Meat Tenderizer, in which the gleaming tool, distorted in the picture’s forefront, transforms into a shiny signet ring. Underneath, on the tablecloth, Napoleon’s soldiers appear to morph like statuary come to life, while the hammer of the tenderizer holds them in place. An implement of violence, yes, but so tenderly, elegantly rendered. This dance between beauty and the grotesque, a preoccupation of Dutch still-life artists like Jan Davidsz De Heem, who painted blossoms and fruit teeming with insects, also intrigues Vetne.
The Dessert, the show’s culmination, depicts a cake oozing a concoction of delicious chaos. Ten sparkling crystal plates surround it. Like Renaissance drapery, the bizarre topography of this drawing seduces with a mesmerizing, enveloping quality that is real and utterly alien. Such hyperreal representation aims to strike a balance between the familiar and the foreign. The obsession with portraying exactness by soaking an object in detail belies the underlying truth – that pillars of our reality, however sumptuous, eventually tumble away. Shiny objects, gold, and silver are just things. The flowers we look at have been dead for
months, maybe years. The cake was never real. Yet Vetne’s renderings of them remind us of their transient nature. They offer us a chance to experience those marvelous moments when the ordinary becomes extraordinary, when a feeling, an experience, or a vision returns to life.
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Katherine Vetne: “Palate Cleanser” @ Catharine Clark Gallery through December 23, 2023.
About the author: Gabrielle Selz is an award-winning author. Her books include the first comprehensive biography of Sam Francis, Light on Fire and Unstill Life: Art and Love in the Age of Abstraction. Her essays and art reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Hyperallergic, Art & Object, Art Papers, The Rumpus, and The Huffington Post, among others. She makes her home in Oakland, California.