Nonagenarian Catherine “Catchi” Childs isn’t an elderly folk artist à la Grandma Moses. She’s an accomplished figurative painter with a sophisticated aesthetic, complex palette and confident, expressive brushwork. River Arts in Morrisville is currently hosting a retrospective of 36 portraits, still lifes and a few landscapes by the artist. Formerly from Long Island, she now lives in Morrisville, but during her long career Catchi’s paintings have been exhibited from England to Japan, and points in between.
These aren’t unassuming little paintings. “Valley of the Arni,” the largest piece in the show at 54 by 72 inches, is a sun-drenched mountain vista in golden yellows and bands of pale green. The composition is monumental. Diagonals folded into each other aim at a low focal point. The sfumato of aerial perspective renders the most distant chain of mountains pale, introducing light blue and pink planes to the faraway peaks.
Catchi is a past president of the New York City-based National Association of Women Artists. She studied with figurative artist Leon Kroll and briefly with abstractionist Hans Hofmann. But older art-historical references have also been important in her work. Reminiscent of Matisse, Catchi’s “Fish Bowl” beautifully presents two goldfish in a round bowl on a small table that is draped in a flowered cloth. Her hues are nearly as vibrant as that earlier artist’s; mauve and reds appear in the background and, in the foreground, yellow floral patterns appear within opulent passages of blue.
“Aerialist” hints at Catchi’s extensive study of figure drawing in her early years. Her solid figures recall those of Cezanne. The aerialist is divided into planes of muscle, light and shadow. Catchi wastes no time on details (the left side of the figure’s face is undefined); her interest is focused on weight, form and gesture. The painting is rendered in earth tones, with figure and background composed of similar hues — except for a single patch of Prussian blue over the figure’s right shoulder, which deepens the space solely with color and value.
The 36-by-16-inch vertical “Fall Bouquet” has a classic compositional arrangement of acute angles tumbling down the picture plane. The narrative is a floral study, with splashes of bright color cascading over the dark background. The flowers are simplified to geometric forms. The painting’s composition is nearly identical to that of Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase.” Both artists constructed images with a logical arrangement of positive and negative space, using strong angles at upper right and lower left. The paintings have a similar arrangement of small and large forms within the central subject, and deep, dark space beyond the foreground. Whether Catchi consciously adopted Duchamp’s composition hardly matters. The point is, she fully assimilated 20th-century modernism, and abstraction is the basis of many of her still lifes.
In her early thirties, during a Hofmann class, Catchi fainted and was taken to a hospital, where she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She was bedridden for a year. But Catchi continued to draw during her convalescence, and, according to her website, considered herself oddly lucky. “I thought of all the things I had to have, it was very good I had tuberculosis,” she writes. “I had read about artists, and one of the main things artists had was tuberculosis, so I figured I was made. I had the proper disease if I was going to have anything.” Even without the “proper” disease, Catchi surely would have developed into a substantive artist. But an unflappable attitude toward adversity certainly couldn’t have hurt.
Catherine “Catchi” Childs, River Arts, Morrisville. Through November 7.