BY ​Juliana Halpert in Opinion | 23 JAN 24
Featured in
Issue 240

Kate Mosher Hall Through the Looking Glass

The artist’s paintings occupy the space between presenting and withholding

BY ​Juliana Halpert in Opinion | 23 JAN 24

This article appears in the columns section of frieze 240, ‘Sleight of Hand

Juliana Halpert It’s been three years since your most recent solo exhibition in Los Angeles, ‘Without a body, without Bill’ at Hannah Hoffman Gallery. I’m curious whether your practice has changed since then and, if so, how you situate within it the new body of work you’ll be showing at the gallery early this year?

Kate Mosher Hall The upcoming show feels like a homecoming. ‘Without a body, without Bill’ debuted right after a major pandemic lockdown; I think 15 people came to the socially distanced opening. So, I haven’t had a ‘normal’ show or opening with the gallery yet, and having this opportunity – in my hometown, no less – prompted me to think about how my work has evolved over the last few years.

‘Without a body without Bill’ was significant because I developed several of the paintings from that show into discrete series of works. So, what I think of as my mesh-like ‘hole’ paintings, my ‘box’ paintings, my ‘stage’ paintings and my ‘recursion’ paintings – ones with repeated, telescoping images – all began there. These categories feel like distinct visual tangents, but they are also near each other in terms of my thinking.

While Moving Between Worlds, 2021. Photograph: Paul Salveson
Kate Mosher Hall, While Moving Between Worlds, 2021.Courtesy: the artist and Hannah Hoffman Gallery, Los Angeles; photograph: Paul Salveson

JH Do you think there is any unifying principle or interest across these different strains of your work?

KMH In 2020, while undertaking my MFA at the University of California, Los Angeles, I made some works that felt like a breakthrough. They were paintings of curtains with holes in them, and they helped me discover and understand the dynamics between visibility and invisibility, presenting and withholding. I became interested in that psychological space, but it was a binary that I then wanted to triangulate. What really worked in those paintings is that they contained illustrations of background characters whose eyes peered out from behind the curtains. The questions for the viewer became: are you looking at the painting and/or is the painting looking at you?

JH Tell me more about this triangulation. How do you integrate a third element into these strict binaries? What can exist between the seen and the unseen, between watching or being watched?

KMH The third perspective is what I’m always seeking to engender in my work. It’s terrestrial yet spiritual, unknowing yet psychological: it’s this gap between the experience of viewing something and the thing itself. When you see something in person, your relationship to it changes depending on whether you’re up close or far away: in different moments, you can see entirely different things.

My painting While Moving Between Worlds [2021], for instance, depicts two people standing next to each other on a stage. They are wearing boxes that, together, form an image of two dogs – a painting within a painting. The image of the dogs is being ‘projected’ onto the boxes. But the way the ‘projected’ image lands on the boxes makes its composition unclear. People can stare at that work for ages and not manage to piece together all the information needed to make out the two dogs, until they move farther away from the canvas. I like that moment of not knowing what you are seeing, despite it being clearly presented or performed on a stage.

The questions for the viewer became: are you looking at the painting and/or is the painting looking at you?

I use a lot of found imagery in my work, and this painting incorporates a still from a 1951 television commercial for Old Gold cigarettes, which features dancers dressed up as cigarette boxes. I’ve always been interested in anthropomorphic stuff that builds tension around a narrative. I photoshopped, redrew and retraced the original footage, and juxtaposed the projected image of the dogs on top. In the finished work, the boxes are almost like costumes or characters that have been projected onto the figures and embodied by them.

LOQK, 2019, Artist Curated Projects, Los Angeles
Kate Mosher Hall, LOQK, 2019, Artist Curated Projects, Los Angeles. Courtesy: the artist and Hannah Hoffman Gallery, Los Angeles

JH I love that the dancers are standing in front of some sort of stage drapes. It strikes me as a wink and a nod to the earlier ‘breakthrough’ works that you mentioned, depicting curtains with holes in them. Is there any throughline here about theatricality or ‘show’ business?

KMH During the pandemic, I was thinking about different perspectives and about performance – what it looks like to view something in a space geared towards presentation versus when it’s being hidden. For example, I thought about the different contexts in which we look at things – phone screens, stages, clubs, houses, books – what it’s like to look at something alone as opposed to with others, and when the act of looking toggles between the intimate and the collective. I’m still interested in this concept, but I wanted to take it away from the idea of stage performance. So, for the works in ‘Big View’ my solo show at Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York, last year – I incorporated depictions of boxes, mirrors and other elements that either reflect or project into the space. The scenarios in these works weren’t set up within a theatrical reality: they’re just innately anomalous or strange or dissonant.

JH So, more smoke and mirrors than straight stagecraft. Would you classify them as abstract works?

KMH There’s this feeling that what is being presented simultaneously retains and loses its object-ness: windows becoming mirrors and vice-versa.

Kate Mosher Hall, Who Saved Who, 2023. Courtesy: the artist and Hannah Hoffman Gallery, Los Angeles; photograph: Paul Salveson
Kate Mosher Hall, Who Saved Who?, 2023. Courtesy: the artist and Hannah Hoffman Gallery, Los Angeles; photograph: Paul Salveson

JH The painting Who Saved Who? [2023] depicts a dog running along a beach, but it looks like you have also inserted a second image of the same dog. Is this another trick up your sleeve?

KMH Yes, the dog is being reflected in a mirror that has been placed on the beach. Here, you can clearly see the progression from my earlier works: the mirror offers a different way of influencing how the image is understood. Who Saved Who? is a continuation of my exploration of the concept of looking and being looked at. The mirror was made and printed at a higher resolution, and the rest of the painting is at a lower resolution, so this accentuates the reflected space, which becomes a contradiction of the reality it is depicting. The ‘timing’ of the image is strange: it takes longer to find the mirror, or to understand what you are looking at, and then your perspective changes when you realize you are being asked to look into a mirror.

3000 lbs, 2022. Photograph: Paul Salveson
Kate Mosher Hall, 3000 lbs, 2022. Courtesy: the artist and Hannah Hoffman Gallery, Los Angeles; photograph: Paul Salveson

JH This multiplication of a motif is taken to the extreme in your ‘recursion’ paintings, such as the vast canvas 3,000 lbs [2022]. One image is repeated at decreasing scales countless times, creating the effect

of an endlessly receding tunnel. It’s dizzying and challenging to parse. Was this another tactic that you devised to straddle seeing and not seeing, or legibility and legerdemain?

KMH I’ve been told that I talk about my paintings as though they are sculptures. I speak of space and resolution, of the viewer’s proximity to the work and how they should navigate what they’re looking at. My thoughts in making these works were reactive to consuming huge quantities of images day to day. The multiplicity creates ‘quantity’ or ‘space’ in the image through two-point perspective. As the form extrapolates into space, it articulates something that is felt through the consumption of images over and over again. 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 240 with the headline ‘Behind the Curtain’

Main image: Kate Mosher Hall, While Moving Between Worlds (detail), 2021.Courtesy: the artist and Hannah Hoffman Gallery, Los Angeles; photograph: Paul Salveson

Juliana Halpert is a writer and photographer based in Los Angeles, US.