April 2009


Linda Francis, Don Voisine, Joan Waltemath, Michael Zahn at Janet Kurnatowski Gallery, and Jennifer Riley: To Be A Thing In This World at LaViolaBank Gallery
by David Cohen

Kurnatowski: March 27 to April 26, 2009
205 Norman Avenue,
Brooklyn (Greenpoint) 718 383 9380,

LaViolaBank: March 26 to April 25, 2009
179 East Broadway at Canal Street (Seward Park),
New York City,
917 463 3901

Don Voisine Debutante Twist 2009. Oil on Wood, 72 x 18 inches, and right, Linda Francis Neutron Star 2008. Oil on wood, 72 x 72 inches. Courtesy Janet Kurnatowski Gallery

Michael Zahn Modern Times 2009. Acrylic on canvas, 62 x 80 x 4 inches, and Joan Waltemath Blue Highway 2007-2008. Oil and graphite pigment on found wood, 9 x 9-1/2 inches. Courtesy Janet Kurnatowski Gallery


Janet Kurnatowski’s current exhibition is as close as a group show gets to being a string quartet.  It is not merely that Kurnatowski offers a four person show or even that each artist is represented by a single piece whose size, character and demeanor corresponds to an instrument in a traditional quartet. Rather, what makes the show quartet-like (I’m thinking Haydn by the way) is the deeply satisfying meld of four distinct but manifestly related painterly voices, and the intimacy – in the sense of scale to the viewer, and togetherness among the four – that the show engenders.  These are artists who can be described as hard-edged but tender hearted; their “playing” – jointly or severally – has the high minded warmth of chamber music.

Mind you, it might not be so easy to ascribe each painting to a part.  Allowing that Zahn must be the cello, as his painting is sitting on the floor, and Voisine as the most upwardly aspiring and clean cut of the paintings a violin, it remains a challenge to determine whether Waltemath or Francis is the viola.  Francis is the tempting candidate in terms of size, as she is larger than Voisine and Waltemath, and sort of the same size as Zahn (his piece is comprised of two overlapping canvases, so it depends if you count the visible or the implied square inches of his work).  But I’m tempted, in fact, to have Francis be the first violin, so strikingly expository is she of a theme.  Waltemath’s picture, by contrast, is diminutive, enigmatic, and quietly instrumental (sorry) in creating the texture that binds the disparate elements of this show.

These are artists who have their form-content ratio pitch perfect.  They all work with pared-down structures, with relatively simple math, but not out of some minimalist-redux attempt to see how basic art can get, nor out of a quasi mystical attachment to geometry per se.  In each picture, there is a sense that the overt structure is a kind of plan for the making of the work, while the work is the exposition of that plan.  But, at the same time, the work is more than its own plan.

In Francis’s Neutron Star (2008), there are four sets of white, thinly drawn circles (of four circles in three sets, five in the fourth) each occupying a quarter of red ground; the paint surface is brushy though even, all-over and not impastoed.  The arrangements vary in the visual impact of the circles' interaction, in the degree to which they are purely schematic or they generate optical illusion.

Voisine’s Debutant Twist (2009), a tall, thin painting, has two outer bands of pale blue that sandwich vertically stacked dark rectangles, the top one to the left of the bottom.  Underneath these ziggurat rectangles is a lighter-toned rectangular shape of the same hue that runs off kilter with all the other shapes at a slight diagonal, syncopating the plumb-line, playing Broadway to the avenues.

Zahn is the most zany of the four, but also the most physically present.  His Modern Times (2009), places a square canvas in front of a rectangular one (landscape oriented) that is just an inch or so higher on its shorter side, with both supported on foam bricks.  They are painted a somewhat obnoxious synthetic browns, with one central, bisecting line in a darker shade, on the horizontal in the rectangle, the vertical in the square.  There are then small return strips accenting the corners, inviting a read of the images as the backsides of wrapped flat packages.  A thin strip of bright color at one edge of each canvas hints at labeling. 

Waltemath adds a painterly, imagistic element that sets her apart from her quartetmates.  Blue Highway (2007-08) seems, at first impression, to represent the grid aflame: there are overlapping planes recalling Voisine and Zahn, but the dominant, dark rectangle to right is filled by an agitated area of orange and red that reads like fire.  There is a sense that it could be city buildings, or some activity in a room spied through an open door.  A figure seems caught in silhouette in the furnace. But then again, the painterly portion could literally be painterliness if the planes are viewed, à la Zahn, as stacked canvases, in which case the fiery rectangle might be an AbEx painting in storage.

These four artists are conceptual or painterly to varying degrees, but in and between each work structure bounces the eye towards texture, idea towards plastic value, and so on.  The conceptual and the painterly are truly symbiotic.  They make music.

Jennifer Riley Bernini, Eiffel, Obelisk 2009. Oil on canvas, 54 x 38 inches. Cover APRIL 2009: Interrupted Sediment 2009. Oil on canvas, 48 x 78 inches. Courtesy LaViolaBank Gallery

If members of this group want to branch into piano quartets, Jennifer Riley is their woman: Her fulsome, vibrant, upbeat paintings are, like a piano, symphonic in possibility while true to a core sound. Hers are grand paintings in scale and scope alike.

As with the Kurnatowski Quartet, Riley is a geometric painter whose forms tease representational possibilities without compromising abstract values.  Her pictures impart the feeling that they are worked algorithmically rather than programmatically, that process trumps result, however much the forms are legible, spatial and enticing. Rather than driving the composition, image goes along for the ride. 

Typically she builds her forms from discernable though irregular blocks: shapes are generally four sided though trapezoids and parallelograms, or else triangulated shapes, predominate, rather than rectangles as such.   Shapes are either filled in with solid color (synthetic pastel hues rather than primaries, always sharp and chirpy) or with bands of thin, hand-drawn stripes against a white ground.

The striped sections can read like sides of forms whose faces alone reflect solid color.  This abets illusions of depth, whether shallow relief or deep space, while the overall surface of her paintings retain literal flatness.  Bernini, Eiffel, Obelisk (2009) describes a vertical form that, despite its crazy-paving irregularity, conforms with the upwardly mobile connotations of its titular citations. It has some sides in a pale pink solid (various tones), others in stripe, to strengthen associations of faceting.  A sense of adherence to a goofy logic in Riley’s forms can bring to mind Jean Dubuffet’s late sculptures with their heavy black outlines filled in with white and the occasional primary.

The pink in Bernini, Eiffel, Obelisk is also subtly fleshly, which perhaps justifies the Bernini allusion (think St. Theresa).  It also recalls the knowingly “feminine” palette of Riley’s earlier, more heraldically modernist-referencing abstract paintings (Kenneth Noland, Agnes Martin) where the unlikely colors lent the works a subversive edge, a characteristic that carries across in milder form in the current series, with its pop palette.

But her sensibility is a far cry from the irony of, say, Sarah Morris or Liam Gillick. The many stylistic and art historical references and allusions in Riley’s works, whether Hokusai, Philip Guston, modernist architecture, classical history and myth, all come across as high minded, enriching rather than curtailing her pictorial ambition.  References, like the forms themselves, are algorithmic in their elaboration.  Her images are organic, and it is their palpable sense of growth that allows them to grow on the viewer, too.



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