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Tara Walters’ exhibition Cessna, on view at Kristina Kite Gallery, cultivates a girlish fantasy-scape filled with stars, rainbows, castles, rolling hills, magic wands, and an ever-softly glowing sun. The exhibition eulogizes the life of Walter’s beloved horse, also named Cessna, by depicting her within romantically luminous, bucolic paintings and wallpaper. Enchanting paintings of Cessna line the gallery walls, depicting various stages of the horse’s life. Wallpaper of Horses Jumping In and Out (2023), which covers the wall bisecting Kristina Kite’s exhibition space, depicts horses lavishing in fields filled with oversized flowers: think Bracha L. Ettinger meets J.M.W. Turner by way of Ann Craven. Meanwhile, Claude Debussy’s gently plaintive composition “Clair de lune” (1905) plays on a loop from speakers in the corner of the gallery. In her fanciful compositions, Walters, a master of mercurial atmospherics, uses subject matter typically associated with kitsch to reflect on loss.
While the exhibition is unwaveringly pleasant, as if fairytales inherited from our youth were scrubbed of all threats, each work is in a state of flux owing to Walters’ intuitive process. The artist begins each painting by applying swaths of pigment and water collected from the Pacific Ocean to the canvas. At night, she rests the work face-down on the floor, commingling its wet, painted surface with detritus-like flecks of dirt, fabric, or stray hair. Through this contact, Walters collapses past, present, and future: her immediate surroundings meld with both the memory of Cessna and the imagined scene that will develop in subsequent days. The resulting paintings, smudged and gauzy, are inflected with a spectrality that matches her subject matter. Apple Orchard Tree (2023), for instance, depicts Cessna as a small, shadowy figure, blending in with the darker tones of the sky. Cessna is present to the viewer but indistinct from her surrounding atmosphere, visualizing the way an object of loss can shape a griever’s world through its absence.
At a time when even the most seemingly anodyne of images tend to contain something more violent or abject, 1 Walters’ paintings stand out. In Cessna Blue Iris (2023), Walters represents her unburdened horse mid-trot, centered matter-of-factly in the composition. The horse and its surrounding diaphanous landscape are redolent of children’s illustrations and Romantic pastoralia, allowing viewers to indulge in the sentimentalism that once defined movements like rococo. While Walters’ arcadian scenes employ content that could be considered kitsch, her compositions challenge the value we ascribe to—or strip from—the category. An object of much opprobrium for modernist critics such as Tomáš Kulka and Clement Greenberg, kitsch is typically defined by its untroubled evocation, rather than confrontation, of sentiments already ingrained in the viewer. But while Walters’ paintings do evoke the sentimental, they also offer viewers the elevated perceptual experiences that critics of kitsch champion, thus challenging any strict demarcation of the low and high feeling art might be understood to conjure.
Walters’ paintings trouble the distinction between kitsch and aesthetic profundity. In California Poppies (2022), Cessna grazes in a sweeping meadow dotted with multicolored flowers. A tension between immobility and speed animates this elegiac image, as Walters’ velocitous brushwork recalls motion blur. Such indeterminacy blankets other paintings, as they seem impossibly suspended at a time that is both twilight and dawn, often incorporating the deep purples of night yet filled with the dewy, budding life of daybreak. In Castle Island (2023), a many-towered castle sits upon an island represented only by a green mound emerging from blue waters. One large, bright star shines above as a dolphin leaps out of the water below. The kitschy quality of this work—its youthful, resplendent glow—articulates a desire whose aims the work cannot meet.2 Representations of loss by a mourner cannot revive the dead, only make present a feature of the lost object’s past self. Cessna is absent from Castle Island, but her world as divined by Walters fills the space with light.
Tara Walters: Cessna runs from February 4–April 1, 2023 at Kristina Kite Gallery (3400 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90018).