The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason: these are the names for a movement that firmly believed mankind was on an upwards path, and that reason would blow away the fog of superstitions and follies. This thinking was powerful in the intellectual life of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe and Francisco Goya, appointed painter to the king of Spain since 1786, was an adherent. Six years later, the artist began growing deaf and his work shows his darkening mood as the lights of the Enlightenment sputtered out in the Romantic era. In February 1799, Spain’s first newspaper, the Diario de Madrid, announced that he had completed a set of etchings, Los Caprichos. This suite of dark images sold poorly at first but in due course became wedged into art history. El sueño de la razón produce monstruos, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, is its most known image.
Goya’s Sleep of Reason, moreover, is as bang on target now as when he took it off the press, which is clear to anybody trying to isolate elements of hard truth among today’s rising tide of frothing misstatements, delusions and outright lies. These have always been an element in our culture, whether as spontaneous eruptions or carefully crafted weapons, like Senator Joseph McCarthy’s list of supposed Communist agents in the State Department in the 1950s but in our era of social media this phenomenon has swollen and become ubiquitous, so that the more hyperreal an image might appear to be the more likely it is to be a deepfake, a doctored video.
The work of Keith Kattner and myself could hardly be more unalike but, upon our meeting, it swiftly emerged that this plays such a powerful part in our thinking that this joint show was a natural growth.
“My art is about the irrational versus the rational,” says Keith Kattner. “Artists have always reflected that.” He notes that Leonardo da Vinci, the young Michelangelo and Raphael were painters of sublime order. Shortly after, they were followed by the Mannerists, so-named for their distortion, imbalance and tension. A scholar has suggested that this reflected such events as the Sack of Rome by Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. “Dada sprang up after World War I, the poison gas and the influenza epidemic,” Kattner says. “The Abstract Expressionists came after World War II,” the carpet-bombing of Dresden, the concentration camps and the bombing of Hiroshima.
Kattner, a practicing neurosurgeon who is well respected in the field, was busily painting privately until 2010, the year he decided to leave his clinic for his studio full-time at the age of 49. The paintings that he was continuing to make were representational, often tranquil landscapes that bring to mind regionalist painters like Thomas Hart Benton and perhaps most especially Frederic Edwin Church of the Hudson River School, but sometimes morphed into cityscape. “I would look at a field or a house or a building and try to reproduce it as I saw it instead of making a painting from the mind,” he says.
Three years ago, however, Kattner’s working methods changed profoundly. In the operating room his every move had been dictated by the rules of nature but in the studio he realized that he was free to make his own laws in a world he controlled. “Much like a composer would create an opera from the mind, I started thinking in terms of where should I put the trees? Where should I put the house? Where should I put the individual?” he explains. Entropy, a concept that had intrigued him in high school, reentered his mind. “Entropy wants randomness and decay. If we put a garden behind our house and don’t take care of it, it will end up as weeds. When we as human beings try to organize things, we’re really fighting the forces of entropy.”
Kattner’s war on entropy became a core element of his art-making and this, he says, aligned his process with that of the Surrealists, most particularly Salvador Dalí. “First I imitated reality, then I worked myself into the process of painting from my subconscious,” the artist says. The process might be Dalínian but the end result is not remotely so. “All images and elements are moved around until the perfect balance has been achieved. A total rational painting is achieved. There are no flaming giraffes in my world.”
A journey through a single canvas, Twilight Over the Mohawk River Valley, gives a sense of his modus operandi. It’s kind of Hudson River, with the flushed, lowering sky; somewhat Charles Sheeler, with the factories, and there are details, which seem to belong together, such as the three men in hard hats to the right and the deer to the left. Kattner is quick to tell you no Edward Hopper-esque sense of a shared story is intended.
So what of the three men? “I needed something to fill that hole,” he says. “The painting will tell you that you need something there.”
What of the deer or the factories? “I see deer everywhere. It was locked in my subconscious. But the deer has no story behind it, there’s no connection with the guys. When I drive along the river I see a lot of factories. But it’s not a narrative and it’s not a dream. It’s a totally absurd painting but organized and highly rational,” says Kattner. It speaks to the power of these contradictions that his anxieties so mounted that for months last year he didn’t paint. Then the virus came and he hasn’t stopped working since. “COVID-19 has kept me totally in focus,” he says.
My cartoonery, too, is mostly observational; it comes out of watching, listening and reading in the real world. But that real world has changed with disruptive speed, with the aforementioned ballooning of social media, the proliferation of internet trolls, cancel culture and the “research-proven” decline of sheer human empathy. Also in the age of COVID some of our inborn characteristics—once tools for our survival—such as our capacity to deny annoying phenomena, notably death, have become a bit risky.
Chuck in our increasing submergence in a post-truth media world, the apparently unstoppable growth of conspiracy cults And the climate, which is not going to stop changing just because we aren’t paying attention. All demand the sober consideration of serious people, who get it, and also need the attention of artists and writers, who also get it. But check out my cheery neon-centered piece, It’s All Good, and you’ll see that, sure as hellfire, our times furnish the comedian, cartoonists included, with plenty of devastating raw material, too.
“The Sleep of Reason,” curated by Debbie Dickinson, opens by invitation at Paul Fisher Gallery in West Palm Beach, Florida on November 28. Cultured Magazine is the proud media sponsor for the opening to benefit the American Red Cross. The exhibition is open to the public from November 29 through January 13. For more information contact: Paul Fisher Gallery, 433 Flamingo Drive, West Palm Beach, Florida, 33401 , Phone: 561-832-5255, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org