Andrea Kowch, An Invitation, 2013. Acrylic on canvas.

By Avery DeLuca

Figure 1. Mary Cassatt, Afternoon Tea Party, 1890-1891. Print, 43.2 x 30.2 cm.

Figure 1. Mary Cassatt, Afternoon Tea Party, 1890-1891. Print, 43.2 x 30.2 cm.

Figure 2. Andrea Kowch, The Feast, 2013-2014. Acrylic on canvas, 152.4 x 213.4 cm.

Figure 2. Andrea Kowch, The Feast, 2013-2014. Acrylic on canvas, 152.4 x 213.4 cm.

Figure 3. Joachim Beuckelaer, The Well-Stocked Kitchen, 1566. Oil on panel, 171 x 250 cm.

Figure 3. Joachim Beuckelaer, The Well-Stocked Kitchen, 1566. Oil on panel, 171 x 250 cm.

Figure 4. Hans Holbein, Lais of Corinth, 1526. Oil on limewood, 34.6 x 26.8 cm.

Figure 4. Hans Holbein, Lais of Corinth, 1526. Oil on limewood, 34.6 x 26.8 cm.

Figure 5. Samuel Van Hoogstaten, View of an Interior (or The Slippers), c. 1654-1662. Oil on canvas, 103 x 70 cm.

Figure 5. Samuel Van Hoogstaten, View of an Interior (or The Slippers), c. 1654-1662. Oil on canvas, 103 x 70 cm.

 

In Andrea Kowch’s An Invitation, Kowch invites the viewer into a fictive space in which four women surround a table laden with food, dishes, and animals. Elements such as the title of the work, the empty chair in the foreground, and the direct gaze from a woman who sits at the table all convey a sense that the viewer has been invited into the scene to join the table; however, the viewer’s entry and access is immediately challenged by a snarling dog that sits in front of the empty chair. Kowch further develops the table as a still life whose elements contribute gender-laden implication to a setting—a tea party—that call into question the viewer’s identity and plausible roles in the composition. The work results in an ambiguous and open-ended question whose possible answers shift with the identities of the ones who ask it: “Who has been invited?”

The composition of An Invitation revolves around the four women who surround a table loaded with dishes, food—such as fruits, cakes, and pies—and animals, such as a guinea pig and ants. The first woman to the far left acts visually as an intercessor for the group and invites the viewer into the space with her direct eye contact, which the breaks the plane of the composition to the meet the eyes of the viewer. To the right of this first woman is an empty chair, in front of which a dog bears his teeth aggressively. The welcoming gaze from the first woman juxtaposed with the hostility of the dog generates tension in which the viewer’s identity is at stake: is one an expected guest or an unwelcome intruder? Behind the first woman is a second woman hunched over the table who holds a teacup and cream or milk pitcher. From the pitcher, milk pours down onto the table, missing the cup for which it was intended. The third woman stands completely upright and holds a piece of cherry pie on a white plate tilted at a dangerous angle. The bloody triangle of pie slides towards the edge of the dish, and sticky streams of red juice dribble onto the table below. The fourth and final woman sits stirring her tea as a ferret held in her black-lace gloved hand gnaws at her fingers.

On the table, the viewer is invited to browse an assortment of cakes, pies, fruits, dishes, flowers, and animals, all meticulously and vividly rendered by the artist with exacting realism. While some of the objects are to be expected at a tea party, others carry meaning that further adds to the painting’s tension. Certain objects arouse distinct gender association in the relation to the setting and the women at the table. The apple, a symbol perhaps of original sin and of the expulsion from paradise, is linked with the female figure of Eve. The pears, which resemble the female figure, relate to femininity. The cherries in the blood red pie supply sexual and visual metaphors that encompass ideas of fertility and menstruation, while the spilled milk pouring from the saucer calls to mind ideas of motherhood and nurturing. Sunflowers, past their peak and heavy with seeds, wilt in a vase, once fruiting and fertile bodies past their primes. The white plates, the white headdresses the women wear, and the whiteness of the milk all evoke virginal qualities. On the other hand, the cup tipped over on its side at the empty place at the table, the sliced pie, the cut apples (one gnawed by the hairless guinea pig), and the bloody cherries all reference a loss of virginity and evoke a sense of violation. This implication of violation ties back into the idea that the viewer is perhaps not a welcome guest.

The eccentric and slightly surreal qualities of An Invitation reflect the artist’s debt to twentieth century artistic movements such as Veristic Surrealism and Magic Realism, which are important references for understanding Kowch’s work. The dream-like qualities of An Invitation reflect the influence especially of Veristic Surrealism.[1] Veristic Surrealism, happening both before and alongside Surrealism, focused on intentionally chosen subject matter decided by the artist with the application of logical interpretations incorporated in the piece to understand the work. In Kowch’s work, for example, a reoccurring theme she depicts in her oeuvre is the women with vacant stares and unkempt hair. In addition, Veristic Surrealism maintained an emphasis on the significance of the human figure. All of these qualities, in addition to others such as symbolic narration, the use of “prismatic” color, deliberate symbolic juxtapositions, a growing concern for the audience, and the use of personal iconographic content (based on the artist’s own life) are all typical of Veristic Surrealism and are evident in Kowch’s work, as well.[2]

The Kowch’s work also recalls Magic Realism,[3] which shifts away from straightforward depictions of reality while retaining depictions of real and identifiable objects.[4] In Magic Realism images are manipulated to push the “ordinary to the extraordinary,” while easily identifiable items take eccentric aspects for the viewer and the environments that these objects inhabit seem implausible rather than impossible.[5] This broad theme of implausible environments is mirrored in Kowch’s An Invitation as the viewer is placed in a rural, mid-westernized space in which an unorganized adult tea party is taking place out of doors. This space and this scenario are implausible but nonetheless possible.

In addition to the correlations between Kowch’s work and various historical stylistic or conceptual movements, Kowch’s work also adapts iconographic themes that have long histories and, consequently, social and symbolic associations. Mary Cassatt, for example, known for her depictions of women and the new modernity of women in the nineteenth century, focuses on domestic settings of women in prints such as Afternoon Tea Party (Fig. 1).[6] The work focuses on the gendered theme of women attending tea parties. However, Cassatt’s work handles this theme in a more realistic conventional manner, while Kowch conceives of the tea party in a manner that asserts something bizarre if not disturbing about this gathering of women. The laden table in An Invitation, as well as in other Kowch paintings, The Feast (Fig. 2), for example, is essentially a form of still life painting that recalls northern European still life painting in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[7] As in Kowch’s work, still life objects in early modern painting frequently carry symbolic meaning, as for instance in the paintings of Pieter Aersten and Joachim Beckelaer (Fig. 3).

Another important element in Kowch’s work is the use of a figure to draw the viewer into the work, a device that the artist uses in both An Invitation and The Feast. This method of engaging the audience also traces its history back to the Renaissance, as in works like Hans Holbein’s Lais of Corinth (Fig. 4) in which Lais projects her gaze as well as her hand to make physical contact with the viewer.[8] In a slightly similar manner that anticipates Kowch’s empty chair, works such as Samuel Van Hoogstraten’s View of an Interior (or The Slippers) (Fig. 5) also invite the viewer into the pictorial space.[9] Here, in Hoogstaten’s work, the viewer is invited into the interior space through elements such as the door frame, an empty chair, and shoes in the hallway that suggest action out of the viewer’s line-of-sight. These elements all help to pull the viewer fictively into the work. In these works as in Kowch’s, the viewer becomes involved in the composition through gestures, eye contact, and beckoning objects (open doors, empty chairs, etc.) within the picture.

Finally, in Kowch’s An Invitation, the strangeness of the women in the scene, paired with the aggressive dog, contribute to an unwelcoming image that creates a disjunction between the viewer and the image. Our access as a viewer is first invited by the gaze of woman on the left and by the empty chair at the table but then challenged immediately by the snarling dog. Through the sexual and gender-relevant objects, including the feminine fruits, foods, and flowers, the viewer’s relation to the participants in the scene is called into question. The gory pie spilled milk, tipped cup, and vacant stares of the other women discomfit the entering viewer. The dog suggests that the viewer’s presence is an intrusion. And yet the seated woman’s acknowledging gaze, the empty place setting, and the very title of the work invite our presence. This conflict becomes an important factor in Kowch’s work, compelling the viewer’s awareness of self as one invited to look, but continually outside the work itself.

[1] For more information on Veristic Surrealism see: Ilene Susan Fort, “American Social Surrealism.” Archives of American Art Journal 22, no. 3 (1982): 8-20.

[2] Bell, Michael S. “Surrealism: An Alternative Approach: Veristic Attitudes in the Work and Writings of Contemporary Surrealists.” Leonardo 17, no. 4 (1984): 247-252.

[3] For further information on Magic Realism see: Edward Lucie-Smith, American Realism. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc, 1994.

[4] Wechsler, Jeffrey. “Magic Realism: Defining the Indefinite.” Art Journal 45, no. 4 (1985): 293-298.

[5] Ibid.

[6] For further information on Mary Cassatt see: Frederick A Sweet, “Mary Cassatt (1844-1926).” The Art Institute of Chicago Quarterly 48, no. 1 (1954): 4-9.

[7] For more information on still lives see: David A. Petit, “A Historical Overview of Dutch and French Still Life Painting: A Guide for the Classroom.” Art Education 41, no. 5 (1988): 14-19. Also see: Seymour Slive, “Realism and Symbolism in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Painting.” Daedalus 91, no. 3 (1962): 469-500.

[8] For further information on Hals Holbein see: “Hans Holbein (1497/8-1543).” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 83, no. 488 (1943): 262-264.

[9] For further information on Samuel van Hoogstraten see: Benjamin Binstock, “Samuel Van Hoogstraten’s “Westertoren”.” Master Drawings 45, no. 2 (2007): 187-200.

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