San Jose Museum of Art

San Jose, CA



Upon a Lilac Sea: Paintings by Catherine McCarthy

September 26, 1999 - January 9, 2009


On Sunday, September 26, 1999 the San Jose Museum of Art will open the first one-person West coast museum exhibition of paintings by Boston-based artist Catherine McCarthy. Running through January 9, 2000, Upon a Lilac Sea: Paintings by Catherine McCarthy represents the artist's most recent body of work and includes 22 paintings that address themes of beauty, maternity, gender, childhood and discovery. Evoking a centuries-past sensibility, McCarthy's passionately rendered yet lyrical images form enigmatic art works that are rich with metaphorical allusions to the artist's life history and personal experiences.

Using universal iconography in her multi-layered works, McCarthy creates a diverse vocabulary to visually chronicle her past. In addition to referencing family snapshots, she borrows freely from art historical sources, quoting Raphael, Piero della Francesca, François Boucher and Antoine Watteau, among others. In her intricate canvases she combines historical, contemporary, sacred, and secular icons that create a narrative compIexity. Articulated in an unlikely mix of masterful painting and impromptu drips and stains, McCarthy juxtaposes seemingly irreconcilable images such as the Virgin Mary with fashion models. Ballerinas, secret gardens, snippets of crinoline and lace, as well as fragmented text from such disparate sources as Emily Dickinson and first-grade reading primers populate the fluid sea of her imagery. (left: Leif the Lucky,"in progress, oil, acrylic on canvas, 53 x 25 inches)

Eleanor Heartney observes in her catalogue essay: "McCarthy's paintings are full of visual and verbal puns, as well as recurrent images that act like musical notes, taking on new meanings as they combine and recombine"

A number of paintings in the exhibition are drawn from two separate series by McCarthy, Beautiful Girls and Explorers and Discoverers, which respectively examine issues of femininity and feminine beauty and masculinity coupled with the lure of the unknown. Among these is "Garden Party" (1998) from the Beautiful Girls series, where McCarthy paints female figures dressed in fancy crinolines to create a genealogical map of her family, giving each figure a personality that corresponds to five female generations from her great-grandmother to her niece. In other works, such as "Folly's Cove" (1999) and "The Bay in Winter (Flow Away)" (1999), both drawn from the Explorers and Discovers series, McCarthy references Hudson River School and American seascape painters as well as male explorers such as Leif Ericsson and Samuel de Champlain. "Folly's Cove" poses a question from a child's primer which asks the student to list what Ericsson saw upon his arrival to North America. McCarthy responds by inscribing the names of trees over the images in her painting, based on the supposition that having come from the frigid north, Ericsson had probably never seen trees in his own country. "The Bay in Winter (Flow Away)," which references Henry Hudson, is teeming with arrows from a chart of the world's ocean currents. (right: Garden Party, 1998, oil, acrylic on canvas, 80 x 60 inches)

Calm and turbulent imagery of the sea appears throughout McCarthy's paintings, serving as a powerful and poignant metaphor for the ebb and flow of memories and emotions. Heartney observes: "McCarthy treats each image as a tenuous thread leading back to a hidden universe. She assembles a tapestry of disparate images, not to defeat meaning, but to draw us into her inner world."

One of seven sisters, McCarthy was born in 1955 in Lowell, Massachusetts, and raised in a strict Irish-Catholic family by three generations of women, including her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. This deeply religious and predominantly female upbringing forms the foundation of her compositions. From the age of five, McCarthy underwent speech therapy lessons for a period of eight years with a formidable woman named Mrs. Ship. The frigate portrayed in a number of McCarthy's works represents this stolid woman who colored her young student's tender view of the outside world. Much of the text that McCarthy uses in her paintings is drawn from the repetitive exercises that she had to endure as a child under the tutelage of Mrs. Ship.

Catherine McCarthy attended The Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts at Oxford University in England from 1976-1977 and received her B.A. from the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston in 1978. Her works have been included in exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University, the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, MA, the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. From January 15 to March 21, 1999, her work was shown in a one-person exhibition at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, in Kansas City, MO.

Curated and organized by SJMA Curator Cathy Kimball, Upon a Lilac Sea: Paintings by Catherine McCarthy is accompanied by a full-color 40-page catalogue with an essay by nationally noted art critic Eleanor Heartney.

San Jose Water Company is the corporate sponsor of Upon a Lilac Sea: Paintings by Catherine McCarthy. Additional funding is provided by the Ucross Foundation.

Read more about San Jose Museum of Art in Resource Library Magazine.

Text and images courtesy of San Jose Museum of Art

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 1999 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

Copyright 2012 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.