May 1, 2008
Inside of a three-month span in late 1811 and early 1812, four massive earthquakes-and thousands of aftershocks-convulsed the midwestern and southern United States. Emanating from the New Madrid fault line, they were felt as far away as New York City and Boston. As in an episode from some apocalyptic tract, fissures opened, lakes were drained and re-formed, and, in what seemed the ultimate act of divine intervention, the Mississippi River changed course and appeared to flow backward. On December 15, 1811, Scottish naturalist John Bradbury was docked just upstream from the Chickasaw Bluffs (the future Memphis), asleep until startled by "a most tremendous noise." "All nature seemed running into chaos," he recollected, "as wild fowl fled, trees snapped and river banks tumbled into the water." One of the disaster's few written accounts (owing to the damage occurring in a region marked by widespread illiteracy), the story nonetheless transmuted into evangelical oral history, signifying not an aberrant almanac season, but the end of the world.
Long forgotten-if cannily relevant to our own ecologically numbered days-this natural-cum-theological event returned as the oblique subject of Rosy Keyser's first New York solo show. "Rivers Burn and Run Backward" was comprised of a suite of works on paper and a handful of massive, self-proclaimed (albeit ironically, one feels) "neo brut" paintings, including one called New Madrid, 2007. Suggesting the urgency of a manifesto, the surface of New Madrid is puckered and congealed into rippling orbs the color of a starless sky and the consistency of tar. Its glossy enamel seems about to bleed, while its sawdust encrustations admit to a narrative of durational process as humbly object-bound as it is visionary. Dyed with ink, stretched, painted, restretched, and so on, this is painting turned in on itself-think Steven Parrino stripped of baroque theatrics. But other works, too, conjure a lost or failing world. Red Bird, 2007, for example, is a messy contraption bisected by a string spine woven into the thickly painted hemp support, from which with the flimsiest Mylar shreds, interlaced with the filaments, protectively ward off advance. Folk Conjugation, 2007, is a composition whose shadowy background becomes denser as it approaches the picture plane, but still offers dying animals only the barest undergrowth in which to retreat.
Indeed, Keyser's work is all about flux and impermanence, and while Buddhist principles waft in and out of titles and appropriated stuff alike-the intimate paean Deed to Life and Death in Baltimore, 2008, being exemplary in this regard, with one of its layers of carefully dog-eared pages, one of which discusses the Four Noble Truths, mounted to a support and sprinkled with minuscule granules of wood-the same arguments obtain by virtue of materials alone. Sawdust appears frequently, a testament to the practical uses of industrial by-products, with Keyser scooping up discarded timber and making of it something else; similarly, her use of obsidian, cooled to glassine perfection from molten lava, privileges temporality and metamorphosis. Wood particles become mental quicksand, and volcanic refuse a pernicious, prickly gold. Take Revelation, 2008, a sawdust painting that traces various materials as they rain down the paper's summit, the recurrent sawdust emitting beads of color before shading into twine frayed at the edges from having been on fire (and taunting further destruction and reconstitution, still). Or Monterey, 2007, and Rugburn, Whiskey Back, 2008, elemental pictures that hover on razor's edges of awkwardness and elegance-the former an inky expanse punctuated with rainbowlike mica and the latter specked with shards of obsidian, that, as the title implies and the rest of Keyser's work advises, can impart a nasty sting if grasped too tightly.