Artists have a knack for finding all sorts of avenues for inspiration. Some travel the world, some escape into the fantasies within their imagination, and others are simply inspired by the everyday, mundane happenings in their lives. The latter is true for artist Kathy Lovas, who turns the sights and sounds from, for example, her daily drive through Denton into a multisensory experience within the gallery space. Lovas’ retrospective exhibition at Liliana Bloch Gallery is a well-deserved dive into the career of an artist and educator who has been shaping the art scene in North Texas for over thirty years.
Lovas, who originally obtained a bachelor’s degree in biology, worked in medical technology and then as a stay-at-home mom before she ever began exploring the arts. It wasn’t until the early 90’s that she received her MFA from Texas Woman’s University, where she focused on photography under the tutelage of photographer and bookmaker Susan Kae Grant. For the past three decades, Lovas has been teaching art at various colleges in the North Texas area while working as an artist herself.
Her retrospective, Indexicality, the Archive, and the Frame, touches on many different bodies of work that Lovas has explored over time, some of which stretch as far back as her MFA thesis show, while others were made this year. Although her formal training is primarily in photography, her practice extends far beyond that medium, and yet she continues to approach her subject matter from a photographic perspective. As the artist puts it, she “can’t sit still with just the photograph.”
So how does one condense thirty years of artmaking into a single gallery space?
The answer is a conglomeration of mixed-media pieces, each with its own distinct narrative. There are sculptural pieces both large and small, installations, video and audio works, and, of course, photographs. Many of the works could be classified as assemblage or found object art. While visiting with Lovas, I was charmed to find that each piece I inquired about had a lengthy and personal story behind it. Most of them begin with her being captivated by an ordinary thing: the shape of a cloud, a story in the newspaper, a piece of furniture, a sign on the side of the road. From there, she disassembles the subject along with her memories and feelings associated with it.
The title of the exhibition references three overarching concepts Lovas explores in her practice. Indexicality (which can be understood differently depending on if the term is used within the realm of linguistics, semiotics, psychology, and so on) refers to the ability of images to point to a specific meaning, person, or idea. Lovas is fascinated with the innate indexical nature of photography and how objects can correspond to words or images.
One installation, The Dining Room Chair, showcases Lovas’ version of Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs (1965), which depicts a chair next to a photograph of that chair next to a written definition of the word “chair.” The artwork is meant to inquire into the nature of art and linguistic connotations, questioning the differences between the actual object, the definition of the object, and a photo of the object when, in the end, they all function similarly, since they point back to the concept of the chair.
Lovas makes the artwork her own by using a wooden chair that has been in her family for generations, next to an old photograph of her family seated on those chairs, which is mounted to the seat of the chair, next to linen cocktail napkins embroidered with lyrics from the Judy Garland song “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries” (a saying that Lovas’ father use to repeat often).
The archive is perhaps the most abundant of the three concepts. Lovas pulls photographs and objects from her familial archive, which she has inherited over the years, as well as a personal archive she has collected over her lifetime. She analyzes the act of being archival and saving tangible objects. One video projected on the gallery wall, titled LaComparsa, depicts bed sheets hung outside, blowing in the wild. On the sheets are photocopy transfers of the artist, her mother, and grandmother, the pictures undoubtedly taken from her family’s archive. Over the video is an audio recording of Lovas’ mother playing a song on the piano. The piece is layered both literally and symbolically, exploring the materiality of the art forms and memories and feeling evoked from the nostalgic imagery. Lovas also pulls from archives that are not her own. A good example of this can be seen in pairs of hanging pants from her 2020 exhibition Clothing Crimes…and Misdemeanors, a show originating from the curious occasion when Lovas’ car was stolen out of her driveway and later found with piles of clothing inside.
Lovas approaches the idea of the frame by questioning its very classification. Is the setting in which an artwork lives and conjures emotion a frame? How does one frame an installation? Or is the installation itself a type of frame? She utilizes the entire gallery space, from floor to ceiling. Sometimes it’s hard to know when one artwork ends and another begins, but that method of displaying installations creates a seamless flow within the space, breaking away from any organizing principles that art galleries typically uphold.
As I talked with Lovas about her work, I couldn’t help but think that her approach to artmaking felt less like a rigid practice and more like just a way of being. She has the ability to dissect and transform ordinary objects and moments into elaborate representations of her lived experience. Each piece feels lived with, charged with a personal and particular aura unique to Lovas. At the same time, she also contemplates our intrinsic ways of seeing and deriving meaning from photographs, considering the evolution and future of photography. At its core, her work is innately autobiographical.
One of the last pieces I saw before leaving the gallery was a collection of dozens of porcelain cast chair spindles (from the same aforementioned family chair) strung up on rope and nailed individually to the wall. The shape and the off-white color was immediately reminiscent of human bones. The casts are inscribed with bits and pieces of text from the Dies Irae (which directly translates to “Day of Wrath”), the Latin chant that describes the Last Judgment. Raised Catholic, Lovas can still recite the hymn from her childhood mass services by heart.
Kathy Lovas: Indexicality, the Archive, and the Frame: A Retrospective Installation is on view at Liliana Bloch Gallery in Dallas through November 11, 2023.
Emma S. Ahmad is an art historian and writer based in Dallas, TX.