KEN KEWLEY

Collage & Painting

January 13 – February 24

Grossman Gallery at Lafayette College , Easton , Pa.

By Jackie Lima

 

The exhibition of the paintings and collages of Ken Kewley at the Grossman Gallery at Lafayette College in Easton , Pa. , is a sort of mini-retrospective of the artist’s work. There are a whopping 67 pieces of art in this exhibition. A painting of waffles from 1984 is on view as well as his most recent collages done as a response to master artists from the history of art.

 

I was first introduced to Ken Kewley, I am guessing, in about 1987. That would be 20 years ago. He was a “sitter” at the Bowery Gallery in Soho , NYC, hired to sit behind the desk, answer questions about the art on the walls, and to sell that art if the opportunity presented itself. I was the director of the Blue Mountain Gallery. The galleries then shared a second floor loft at 121 Wooster Street ( they have since moved to Chelsea with all the other galleries ) I was taken aside after the introduction and whispered in my ear, “He’s a really good painter.”

 

Occasionally I am able to find the time to draw from the figure in the Thursday night sessions held at Lafayette College . During a break once, I walked around the room to see what other artists were doing and I stopped in front of Ken’s work. He was out of the room, but the person working next to him said to me, “He’s a really good painter.”

 

            Having seen both versions of the film “The Manchurian Candidate”, I am suspect when different people have the came rote opinion of someone or something. It makes me think they do not have an opinion of their own, but have opted for accepting what has been told them.

 

I find there to be something odd about Ken’s work. It has traditional subject matter and often uses art historical references, so that seems pretty safe. It is very restrained. He keeps a tight rope on his experimentation. It could easily go unnoticed.

 

Let’s take the two works that are on the announcement…same subject, different process, very similar structure, approximately the same size. They were purposefully placed facing each other on the card. Each figure is surrounded by an arrangement of shapes which holds it into the picture plane and substantiates its central position in the composition. Remove everything from behind the figure on the right and she still stands there. Remove everything from behind the figure on the left (if you can separate them ) and this figure is in a very precarious position, leaning in a way that exemplifies stress and possibly falling over. That figure needs the structure of the composition to BE a standing figure. It is a product of its environment.

 

There is very little relaxing anything in these paintings. It is that stress that I want to discuss, that which could be referred to as “visual tension”. Nothing sits straight. Especially in the collages, whose edges are left as a loose interpretation of a rectangle, I challenge you to find a true vertical or horizontal within the structure of the image. In Figures in a Landscape #2, you might make a case for the magenta trousers on the figure to the far left. Every piece of color in the entire work is consciously NOT conforming to vertical or horizontal. When I closely measure that piece of magenta, even IT is ever so slightly askew. This is not comforting, but it IS what compels us. It IS what makes us feel strangely glommed on.

 

I have always felt that the appeal of Ken’s work, collages aside, is his revelry in paint. He loves the stuff. Each brushstroke is meant to reveal the tactile lusciousness of the medium. Take a look at the little figure paintings done in the Thursday night session. The medium is juicy and fluid. One has to look closely to find the subject matter because the subject is really paint. The figures hidden in the paint are used as an excuse for the celebration. It is no surprise that delectable pieces of pastry, cookies and cake are used as subject matter. I often use the metaphor of mixing butter and sugar / frosting when I am teaching students how to mix paint with a palette knife. When I wrote a mutual friend that I was writing about Ken’s work she wrote back, “I have the card for Ken's show. It looks delicious. He is so good.” Vincent Van Gogh is thought to have caused or exacerbated his illness with his love of juicy paint. “Apparently Van Gogh used to manipulate his artwork with his thumb and would then lick it off. He also used to eat out of the same bowls he used for painting…” (http://www.vggallery.com/forum/illness.htm) But – the subject matter in this case seems to be an excuse for the celebration as well. I have found that the pastries and the nude figures are interchangeable.  I recall my Art history professor in graduate school discussing one of Cezanne’s early paintings and pointing out this little nude on a couch as a “dumpling on a napkin”. This professor would have fit into the category of “feminist”, but I think there is something to it. Nudes and cupcakes could be considered little yummy things expressed in the juicy vehicle of paint to make the viewer salivate and desire. Note the three paintings on the right wall just to the left of the large paintings of pastries. They have exactly the same format. They have exactly the same paint quality and structure – and yet, one of them is a still life of pastries on a plate and 2 of them are figures on the model stand. Delicious!

 

Leonardo DaVinci was known to have written in his notebooks backwards and in reverse. This, I believe, is what led to the mystery of his being attributed to having a “code” to be broken. All you really need is a mirror, a magnifying glass and knowledge of the c 15th Italian written language. Since Ken Kewley cuts all of his colors for collage out of magazines, a similar kind of mystery has evolved. Again all you need is a mirror, a magnifying glass and an interest in American culture to crack this code. I expect that it would be much less satisfying than the experience with Leonardo. The reason is that it has very different intentions. Ken is not trying to hide important information. He is offering his viewer more visual stimuli. It is a way of creating a texture somewhat different than the flat color of the printed page. Note that he does not ever put it face up. It is meant to be so very subtle as to be almost imperceptible….much like the subtle angles of the compositions themselves. In one case, he put some (grass imagery) face up in about a ¼” piece of paper in a landscape collage on the back wall. See if you can find it. That is as far as the artist was willing to go in this direction at that time. Restraint!

 

Using a knife to mix and apply paint has led to this feeling of the blade or scissors in the collages and then back into the newer paintings. All of the collages have a geometric choppiness to them. Then he developed a painting process that has evolved this pictorial device a bit further. The process of collage, as an application of glued pieces of paper, is one of layering. I am reminded of Graphic Design software which employs the use of layering as a way of controlling the pieces of information within a digital work. It is also a spatial device that has been in use for centuries. The first shape down is in the distance and the last shape put down is in the front spatially. Of course, how much illusion of space is actually created has to do with the color of the shapes and the amount of color distributed to the viewer’s eye through the shape and its placement within the composition. It is also very important what color environment a shape exists within. The magenta with ochre behind it behaves differently than the same magenta on a red background. This all affects the spatial illusion and Ken knows this. This knowledge is more the subject of this work than the content. Again, the content is an excuse to revel in this knowledge which has certainly occupied many painters, like Hans Hoffman and Josef Albers to name the obvious, for their entire lives. He has found, in the printed page of the popular magazine, the most unusual colors imaginable…or so it appears. Even if he does cut a “typical” red out of the magazine, it is placed in a situation in the context of the work which renders it unusual. I feel that I have never really seen these odd colors before. None of them is normal. His color choices are odd. They are magic. They are so in tune with the subtle angles and the pictorial complexity as to actually make music.

 

The size of these works and the scale of the image makes these works seem entirely intimate with the viewer. It is you and a complex visual treat worth all the attention it can get.

 

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