artcritical.com: October 2005
KEN KEWLEY: COLLAGES
by Eric Gelber
Ken Kewley, clockwise from top: Seated Bather in a Landscape (after Renior) 2005, paper collage, 7-1/2 x 5-1/4 inches; Pittsfield Houses 1999, paper collage, 3-3/4 x 4-1/2 inches; Still Life After Braque 2003, paper collage, 3 x 4-3/8 inches; Judith with the Head of Holofernes (after Giorgione) 2005, paper collage, 7-1/4 x 3-3/8 inches, all courtesy Lori Bookstein Fine Art
According to his resume, Ken Kewley has been exhibiting his work since 1991, but except for brief blurb reviews and a few sentences in reviews of group exhibitions, his work has not been written about. Considering how agile, sensitive, and nuanced the 22 collages in this fantastic exhibition are, one can safely say that the art world continues to remain willfully ignorant of the inspiring output of many living artists.
Kewley has said in the past that one of the reasons he makes collages is because the process reinvigorates or redirects his painting process. He studies the palettes of other painters, or the colors in the landscape or the clothing and flesh of the model before his eyes, and searches for ways to depict them through placement of shaped bits of paper. This exhibition includes a number of collage interpretations, rather than copies, of paintings by Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, Braque, and Giorgione.
Kewley captures the essences of these painter’s palettes by generating color fields or sensations entirely through juxtaposition. There is no layering or blending or brushwork, there is an exacting decision making process. All means of expression have been reduced to placement of bits of colored paper. Among the most mind boggling collages in this exhibition are a series of interpretive studies, most likely from reproductions, of several nude bathers by Renoir. These collages are masterful displays of the cumulative effects of color. Kewley re-crops the originals and focuses on the play of light and shadow across bare flesh, the ways in which skin tones are constructed, and the way volumes and planes come into being entirely through juxtaposition of colors. As the viewer stares at the work a sort of subliminal blending takes place because each bit of paper remains physically autonomous on the actual surface of the artwork, but we experience a flowing interrelationship of parts because of Kewley’s profound understanding of color. Neighboring snippets of paper blend to form a unified field of color when the collage is seen from a distance or through squinting eyes. Furthermore, in these collages the artist describes shadowy concavities, fleshy highlights on plump thighs and rounded breasts, bone and muscle structure, suggestively upraised arms and bent torsos, and the lovely tan and olive subtleties of flesh tones, with tiny, straight edged, triangular and rectangular snippets of paper. Kewley captures the voluptuous curves, the bosomy Ruben-esque figures, without using any curved lines.
In the collages of landscapes such as Pittsfield Houses, 1999, and View out Back, Easton, 2003, the sides and roofs of houses, the horizon line, the foreground and background, the earthbound natural and inorganic structures, and the deep space of sky, are flattened out. The analytic cubist paintings done in L'Estaque come to mind. Kewley does not flatten out three dimensional forms and present a surround view of them in a systematic way. Everything doesn’t add up. Sometimes a square bit of paper is placed in such a way that it contradicts the structure two or three bits of paper next to it strongly suggest. We make sense of shapes, recognize a house, but at the same time, the surrounding bits of paper transform the sign into one element in the overall tapestry of the collage. He chooses graphically striking indicators of particular objects and rhythmically locks them together, without relinquishing the sense of place. The bits of paper also portray light and atmosphere. These collages explore the primary formal strengths of color. Depending on the tone of the colored bit of paper, light and shadow are richly depicted; light playing across flesh, light wending its way through a landscape or still life. The collage elements play dual roles. They are formal elements in a strong flat array of balanced colors, and they also suggest three dimensionality. In the background planes, walls, or earth and sky are broken up into interlocking pieces, which push elements forward, the human figure, the house, still life objects. The tactile process entailed in this vacillation of compositional elements energizes these surfaces.
Patio Hammock, 1997, is the only collage in the exhibition that is strongly reminiscent of the paintings of Stuart Davis and early cubist papiers collés. The collage elements are centered, surrounded by blank space that acts as a framing device that also punctures the cluster of shapes. Certainly the individual parts add up to a particular place, but they are not as tightly interlocked or grounded in space. These free floating descriptive signs make us see hammock, fence, trees, but they gently coalesce and resist being tightly interlocked, simultaneously.
Judith with the Head of Holofernes (after Giorgione), 2005, perhaps the greatest work in the exhibition, is a perfect example of the ways in which Kewley can create complex color sensations using a minimal amount of colored pieces of paper that have been carefully cut in order to maintain the visual flow of the figure. The shadows and highlights and voluptuous folds in Judith’s red cape are depicted with purple, maroon, pink and liver colored bits of paper. Kewley gets to the expressive essence of Giorgione’s complex tonal ranges and underpainting. He reconstructs the emotional content of the colors found in the original or in the reproduction of the original, it really doesn’t matter.
ERIC GELBER, contributing editor at artcritical.com, is an artist and critic. He also contributes to Sculpture, Artnet and other publications.
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