Katie Herzog opens the vine-covered door to her home, a former bar located in the Glassell Park neighborhood of North East L.A., holding her small smiling daughter Wanda, who was born a sneeze before the last New Year. Wanda reaches out and touches the air beyond her brick and mortar threshold and looks at her mother, who returns the smile with a quiet coo.
Herzog, wearing what could be described as a signature look, large black, framed glasses, walks through the open floor plan of her home and heads into the bright white walled space of her studio, which occupies an entire half portion of the house. The domain of easels, rainbow colored oil paints, and stacked organized plastic bins of various scraps of paper, books, and brushes is situated between two large outdoor, at one time smoking patios, which the artist and husband James have transformed into serene resting areas, littered with makeshift baby toys, wild vines, and a hammock.
"As a new mom," she explains, resting against a Spanish adobe style bed from a previous piece entitled, "Pio Pico," and balancing Wanda on her chest, "every single person I've met that has a baby is scared shitless of this, about jobs and opportunities and 'how will I continue to make art and all this stuff,' which is really valid and a bit terrifying. What's been amazing for me is Davida-Nemeroff and one half of Night Gallery which also includes Mieke Marple -- didn't think twice about giving me this show. It's amazing that Davida didn't think twice."
That upcoming solo show, Transtexuality (SB 48), opening June 29th at Night Gallery, alongside artist Kenneth Tam, is a painting installation based on Gerhard Richter's, "48 Portraits," originally completed for the 1972 German Pavilion of the Venice Biennale, and very close to Herzog's heart. "I remember the first time I saw it, I had a physical reaction, it made me very angry and I felt frustrated."
Richter's paintings were of white men of the arts and letters and chosen for inclusion in the project based on the artist's strict self-imposed restraints. Namely, he chose his subjects images from the encyclopedia. Dealing with the issue of transgendered language and identity, Herzog allowed herself the usage of the Internet, making it in some respects her main source for culling subjects. The piece will work both as a social critique on access but as well an investigation into the new ways in which information is being recorded.
The number 48, the second half of the show's title, is a reference to Senate Bill 48. Having been signed into place by Governor Jerry Brown, it would require the inclusion of trans individuals in school textbooks. Since being passed in 2011, multiple attempts have been made by opposing politicians to destroy the bill's chances of coming to fruition.
"A criticism I often get is, why does your work always look different, or why do you always pick up a new style? But to be honest, I've never seen it as a problem. I've been involved in LGBT communities for years and this particular piece is about trans history but also about language and gender. My hope for the piece is that it can function on those multiple levels. The idea of creating a new public document addressing a lack of history, making a piece about Senate bill 48, and the idea of addressing gendered thought."
One theme that has remained consistent, however, is Herzog's use of vibrant color choices. The paintings cannot be described as subtle, another fierce yet quiet commentary on taking up space, visually and intellectually. The paintings announce and position themselves in your presence, even if caught in the periphery of your eye.
Although it might take different visual mediums, the work holds a conceptual consistency that pulls the pieces into a cohesive narrative. Being able to recognize that vision, as inherently feminist might be a reason why aesthetics have played so heavily into questions surrounding its purpose in her oeuvre.
Everything about Herzog though, harkens back to an earlier time of second wave feminist activism. Opening its belly to political criticism and clarity of intention, her work exhibits an artistic bravery. There is something refreshing, exciting and earnest about Herzog's art. When considering her work the honesty of artists such as Judy Chicago, Niki de Saint Phalle, Carolee Schneemann, and other women artists featured in the 2007, WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution exhibition, come to mind.
Herzog's place in this pantheon of powerful women is encouraging for more than just her aesthetic contributions, which are eclectic and often times fantastical. More importantly however, conceptually the pieces pick up and bridge a gap that was widened in the first second wave feminist revolution; the exclusion of issues pertaining to queer individuals and women of color. Such exclusions sprouted activist subsets such as Womanism, giving birth to radical queer and gender theorists such as bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldua, Howardena Pindell and Adrian Piper. In Herzog's art there is a convergence of eras, a congealing of theories and radical gender work that works to seal this gap.
As well, Herzog displays a true historians touch for creating new narratives. She is hesitant to speak on behalf of the transgendered community, but rather wants to shine a light on how they have been socially maligned and ignored. "This project isn't about subjectivity," she says, "this is not about, 'my experience.' This is about recorded history."
The interior walls of Herzog's home are covered in art by friends and peers. Wanda's nursery is a veritable gallery of up-and-coming artists in Herzog's community. Each piece is commissioned or curated out of love and acts as a colorful glimpse into the mind of young artists; what belongs in a baby's room? Sleeping giants, folktales, spinning ballerina jewelry boxes, a 1970's pencil drawing of urban children jumping and dancing in bellbottoms, are a few pieces of the sunny décor.
Herzog bristles at the idea that the personal can somehow be separated from the political. "One thing that feminism has really provided me is the truth that the personal is political," she says. "Being a figurative painter dealing with personal narrative I felt as if I was being viewed as not doing conceptual art, but a large part of my life's work and my project is understanding that trajectory because painting has always been a way to process personal information, trauma, or coping. If I feel like I don't have words to express something I can always make a painting about it and then years later look at the painting and go, Oh, okay, this is what that was about. So it definitely has not been an only cerebral endeavor."
Her job as a librarian has informed a political outlook specifically when addressing the issue of archives. "I worked at the Whittier Public Library for six years at the reference desk doing some collection development and the idea of curating knowledge was something that I started to investigate." Eventually she began not only painting scenes from her daily life inside the library, but displaying the work there as well. "Through having those exhibitions and this gets back to the topic of subjectivity and knowledge, I felt like it was important to show art about knowledge curation while providing that service."
"Artists I relate to are Adrian Piper and I love the Guerilla Girls." Referring to the political feminist art radicals who make social awkwardness and confrontation their M.O. "They use humor and media, billboards and museums as a way to spread their message. If I could do anything and not worry about money, I'd be a Guerilla Girl." With work that speaks across genre, itself becoming a part of public practice, Herzog's bold and confident paintings breathe and shine as vibrant, modern examples of what the Guerilla Girl's have been wearing masks for, this entire time.
Additionally she scoffs at the idea that calling herself a feminist artist is limiting. "I'm fully ready to talk about the idea of gendered thought," she says. "We need to." She views the upcoming project as a way to resolve lingering misconceptions about her art while also putting feminist ideologies into practice in the real world, where sometimes theory doesn't always make its way into actualization.