Much Of A Muchness
by Elizabeth Michelman
“Did you ever see such a thing as a drawing of a muchness?” the Dormouse
asks Lewis Carroll’s Alice at the Mad Hatter’s tea party. It’s a maddening “muchness” Providence artist Kirstin Lamb draws and paints in her campaign against rumors of the Death of Painting. But Lamb is not mad, she is simply committed to the critical debate about what painting can be — and can no longer be. Excess is her trope and appropriation is her tool. A virtuoso in
the handling and history of paint, she reveals the contingent stance of the consumer who is showered with cultural representations of the construction of desire and of feminine ambivalence.
Like any conventional painter, Lamb prepares panels for painting, sets up still-life props, chooses paints, mixes colors and applies them with a brush. Recognizable content abounds in the paintings — flowers, faces, an inordinate number of small objects, even rabbits and trees in a landscape. But the components of her gouaches and oils are borrowed cultural forms and visions disconnected from immediate sense experience. They function as signs grounded in a system of reproduction, proliferation and exchange.
Lamb draws by hand, often to the point of forgetting what she is drawing. In place of an illusionistic draftsmanship, she favors the awkward touch and devotion to detail of a fifth-grade girl lost in fantasy. She fills her sketchbooks ad nauseam with obsessive re-drawings of drawings and photographs from books, paper ephemera and the Internet. By the time her copies of copies of images reach the canvas, they have degraded to caricatures.
Lamb’s early “Piles” are avalanches of fruits, meats and sweets, live and dead animals, dismembered bodies, politicians’ heads, flags, birds and skulls. The hectic details obscure disturbing associations to Nazi looting and other World War II atrocities. In later “Vanitas” paintings, Lamb more formally conveys over-satiation by tipping the picture plane into the viewer’s face. “Better Materialists,” a small gouache from 2008, bursts forth in cataracts of luscious cookies and cakes, sliced fruits and boiled eggs and hillocks of ham and steak cutlets (bonein). Women’s lopped-off torsos, busts and heads are scattered around, decked in outmoded fashions and wearing insipid, disconnected expressions. Trophy stagheads, dead geese on hooks and towers of grinning skulls bear witness.