"Maureen Cavanaugh “Lovey Loverson” At 31 Grand," Brooklyn Rail / by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

Girls are different from boys.  I’ll admit it; I’m a guy from a family of guys.  I don’t know what life is like for girls.  That realm was, and still is, as mysterious as life in Tibet or perhaps on Venus.  But like most guys, I’m fascinated by the motives and desires of and the influences on contemporary women, particularly those women who make it a priority of exposing their feminine world to us, the uninitiated viewers.

Maureen Cavanaugh’s “Lovey Loverson” is a selection of paintings and small works on paper that initially seems to reinforce the common clichés of much “Post Feminist” or more recent “Chick Art.”  These works however, present a tightly knotted bundle of supposed contradictions: a cuteness that verges into the grotesque, an erotic voluptuousness that transforms into a Gothic severity, and a naïveté hiding a knowing cynicism that isn’t afraid to play the kitsch card when it suits her purposes.  Many of the subjects and poses of these paintings are a subversive codex of iconic female images: the bather, the dancer, the lounger, the seductress.  Popular fellow painters tilling similar areas in the fields of “Post Feminism” like John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage and Karen Kilimnik seem to relish a pimp-like condescending approach to the viewer.  Yet for the breadth of historical and contemporary references in these works, there remains in Cavanaugh a stylistic sense that is at the same time more authentically expressionistic and, what Irving Sandler has quantified as, “pathetically” funky.

In “Taking Off the Pink 2” (2005) an anorexic female figure, back to the viewer, pulls a white blouse off over her head.  Her transparent pink skirt arches out stiffly like a tutu, revealing her panties beneath.  But for the accentuated contours of the attenuated body and the white daubes that highlights the spine, like an anatomy chart, this would approach classis cheesecake.  A group of “cuddly” critters including a fawn, a squirrel and an abstract peacock watch from the front in a swirl of pastel clouds.  A bucolic semi-nude gloss on the Rococo appeal of Watteau and Fragonard, or cuteness gone creepy, akin to big eyed Keane Kids on crank? 

In smaller works Cavanaugh is less concerned with the overall composition and finish, and lets the rawness of pencil drawing on bare primed canvas contrast with more heavily worked details.  In both the small works “Ski Mask” (2005) and “Skull Cap” (2004) faces of friends appear behind masks, an oft used device, that here is brought to a spooky crescendo through aggressive brush work and an odd distortion of intent.  Though no ponies or puppy dogs are depicted, Cavanaugh does have her animal favorites inhabiting the paintings.  Odd looking birds that could be kingfishers or blue jays appear often, a kitty cat lounges on a chair back as it watches over “Kim” (2005), and a pair of“Cheetahs” (2005) rest under a sketched-in branch full of cardinals. 

Life is becoming ever more complex.  The demands that society and the media place on young women through their conflicting imperatives are unrealistic.  Perhaps it’s this that Cavanaugh is confronting in her recent quirky paintings, a desire to be simultaneously a sexy vamp, and a cuddly kid, an unsophisticated outsider and a knowing art world initiate.  Beneath the rainbows and flowers, the babes in thongs and the swirling puffs of cotton candy, be careful.  There might be razor blades hidden inside this pretty package from the “Valley of the Dolls.”