Cynthia Knott and the American Sublime; Karen Weiner and the American frontier, maybe; Zeuxis and the enduring still life.
|Cynthia Knott, RedSea
The gorgeous mutability and incandescent light of Cynthia Knott’s paintings are constant pleasures. No matter how familiar her pictorial approach, every exhibition offers fresh variations on a consistent and lovely rule.
Despite the exhibition title, Ms. Knott’s subject is not sea at all but the stratum above. She keeps a glistening horizon line as low as possible, granting the sea just enough space to keep from falling off the picture plane or losing its identity as a reflective body. Emphasis is on skies infused by light, forms dissolved in an encompassing radiance produced by multiple, scraped layers of transparent oil and encaustic. Horizons and the sea itself disappear at times into a single, pulsing luminosity. (How much translucence here is owed to encaustic is hard to tell. The medium requires rigid support but these are worked on stretched linen.)
This is the 19th century American Sublime pared down for contemporary sensibilities: the Hudson River School, minus its cultural preoccupations. Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, Asher B. Durand and Jasper Cropsey created an idealized fusion of religious sensibility, classical culture and exaltation of the American democratic experiment—arguments for the divine gloria addressed to the eye. Ms. Knott seizes on their light, eliminating their underlying socio-cultural purposes. She reduces landscape to a minimal reference: the sea viewed at great distance, close to the visible edge of earth’s surface. Yet even this decrease cannot not erase the residuum of transcendent grandeur that binds Ms. Knott to her antecedents. Her paintings shimmer with paradisial suggestion.
Three smaller canvases bear special notice: “Migration I” and “Migration II,” both 2005, and “Red Nigh II,” 2004. Here, dark seas turn a nearly opaque blue-black, becoming abstract borders with only a hint of reflection. Fiery skies—red-toned and striking in their heat—are unusually turbulent, alive with increased pictorial activity. This is partly a by-product of size: every centimeter is within arm’s reach from a single standpoint; Ms. Knott can gauge the painterly possibilities of every jot at once. Results are exhilarating.
I fell for Karen Weiner’s “Frontiera” in spite of myself. Discount effort to present it as a frowning “investigation” of Western (as in Wyoming) culture; the work is zany, inviting and beautifully crafted. Karin Weiner is an inventive needlewoman, a witty and delicate collagist with a fine compositional sense.
Her “Campfire Karaoke,” (2005) with velveteen rocks on a rag rug, lets devout urbanites sing along to “Comin’ Round the Mountain” without the nuisance of the real outdoors. Turn on the video and you can have a campfire in your own living room. And who wouldn’t love to sleep under “The Fortune Teller” (2005), a cloud burst hung from the ceiling like a quilted, tufted mobile? A 3-dimensional mandala made of photocopied and cut images of deer and caribou, “Target Practice” (2005) upends the ironic title by its own daintiness and whimsy. Besides, you can’t mock “cultural reliance on technology . . .over the unpredictability of instinct” and, at the same time, disapprove of shooting your own supper.
Much could be said about the disjunction between portentous promotional fustian and the work itself, but better to just enjoy Ms. Weiner’s actual achievement. She keeps faith with the free nature of play, a rare exception to the play-to-order imitations prevalent all around.
A floating stable of still life painters, Zeuxis was founded in 1994 by Phyllis Floyd in her Chelsea loft with a flock of like-minded artists. Named after the Greek still life painter immortalized by Pliny, Zeuxis is committed to direct observation and to the responsibilities and constraints of representation. The group has mounted close to 30 exhibitions and gained the support of established painters invited to exhibit with them. Dealers have been willing to lend valuable work—a compliment to the quality of its shows.
Gabriel Laderman, an influential spokesman for representation in the 1950s and 60s and a Zeuxis quest, curated this exhibition, hosted by Kouros Gallery. Selection was guided by Mr. Laderman’s desire “to see how much poetic metaphor our work is capable of being freighted with.” In other words, how much grandiloquence can be hung on individual works. Despite rhetorical conceits, Mr. Laderman chose well. Ruth Miller’s rhythmic, give-and-take delineation of forms is reason enough to attend. So are two deceptively simple canvases by Lennart Anderson, a still life painter of singular power. Mr. Anderson elevates quotidian things—a head of lettuce, an ear of corn—with rare sympathy in a true marriage of painting and drawing.
“Cymbols and Roses” (1990) displays Leland Bell’s inheritance from Jean Helion and Roger de la Fresnaye, sending us back to these two modern French painters with gratitude. Bevin Engman’s “Glass House” (2004) is a lustrous study of translucence, light displacing spatial facts as it passes through multiple panes of glass. Langdon Quin’s “Still Life with Senses” (2004) is cerebral and elegant, the composition—hinting at a fractured portrait—built from plaster casts of a nose, mouth, ear and eye orchestrated within the geometries of a checkered cloth. Victor Pesce’s elongated train of boxes is an artful dodge around the expected visual field establishing the size of objects in space. Lucy Barber is a painter we should see more of.
Mr. Laderman’s own arrangement is solid and accomplished. A raking yellow light across a welter of crockery lends a harsh melancholy to the disorder on a table and the floor below. During a gallery talk, Mr. Laderman said a necessary thing: “Originality is not found by being radical; it is found by being thoughtful.” We come to Zeuxis for thoughtful painters, not aggrandizing themes.
“Cynthia Knott: Paintings of the Sea” at DC Moore Gallery (724 Fifth Avenue at 57th Street, 212-247-2111).
“Karin Weiner: Frontiera” at Ziehersmith (531 West 25th Street, 212-229-1088).
“Zeuxis: Poetic Dimensions in the Modern Still Life” at Kouros Gallery (23 East 73rd Street, 212-288-5888).
These reviews first appeared in The New York Sun, July 14, 2005.
Copyright 2005, Maureen Mullarkey