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Domestic Nightmares in the Language of Kitsch

Beth Katleman: Domestic Nightmares in the Language of Kitsch

By Bill Rodgers
CFILE, July 23, 2015

New York sculptor Beth Katleman uses decorative elements that, on their face, appear wholesome, but that hide subversive, often dark messages. These works use the language of kitsch and rococo, often borrowing objects Katleman rescued from flea markets. Using an art form designed to evoke the dalliances of the wealthy, it’s not surprising to find that one of her treacle-y woodland scenes depict characters oblivious to a small child drowning in a nearby pond.

Rather than delighting in horror or simply being a parody of a comically wholesome art form, her work uses shock to confront us with truth. If she places children in danger, it’s to show us the real darkness lurking at the borders of childhood. Leda (2013) shows two girls playing near a swan in the park. If you recall your Greek myths, you’ll recognize this as a reference to Zeus’ sexual encounter with the young Leda. This scene captures the lecherous Zeus before the act, a message about the dangers awaiting all people on the cusp of adulthood.

We’re reminded there of the gleefully evil sculptures of artists like Barnaby Barford but Katleman has other insidious tricks up her sleeve. We’re appreciative, in particular, of the wallpaper she created for Folly, a 2010 exhibition at the Jane Hartsook Gallery in New York. Emily Rappaport described the wallpapers in an Artsy editorial. Katleman cleverly uses our benign associations with wallpaper to pull off a sneak attack.

“Katleman, like Warhol and Picasso, works with wallpaper; her Folly installation (2010), for example, consisted of florid porcelain sculptures mounted onto a pastel blue wall, creating a kind of three-dimensionally patterned paper. Unlike her male predecessors, however, Katleman also uses this medium to explore—and, ultimately, undermine—the myths of domesticity. ‘There’s been a tradition of artists inspired by wallpaper,’ she has said. ‘It’s so polite….You think, English country houses. You feel comfortable. You are used to feeling like it’s in the background, and that it’s safe. So, as an artist, you can use that to mess with people’s heads. Wallpaper puts people’s defenses down, and you can exploit that a little bit.’”

Katleman, who works in Brooklyn, was born in Park Forest Illinois, according to her biography. She holds a BA in English from Stanford University, an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art and an MBA in Arts Management from UCLA.

She is represented in many public and private collections in the U.S. and abroad, including the M.H. de Young Museum, San Francisco, CA, the Ci Kim Arario Gallery Collection, Seoul, South Korea, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, WI, Right Management, Philadelphia, PA and the Archie Bray Foundation, Helena, MT, among others. In 2013, Katleman completed a large installation for Christian Dior’s flagship store in Hong Kong.

Katleman is the recipient of the 2011 Moet Hennessey Prize for the best decorative art object at PAD, New York, a Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation grant, a Kohler Arts/Industry Fellowship, the Watershed Generation X Award, and a residency in Cortona, Italy sponsored by the University of Georgia, Athens.

Her sculptures have been exhibited internationally in art fairs such as Art Miami, Design Miami, Design Miami/Basel, PAD Fairs in London, Paris and New York and museums including the Museum of Arts and Design, New York, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, and the M.L. de Young Museum, San Francisco among others.