Gallery Going, by DAVID COHEN          
      A version of this article first appeared in the
New York Sun, March 9, 2006


BRAD KAHLHAMER: Girls and Skulls
Deitch Projects


Lois Dodd Clothesline 2004, oil on masonite, 14 x 20 inches; and right, Step Ruin with Figure 1997-2001, oil on linen, 40-3/4 x 40-3/4 inches. Courtesy Alexandre Gallery

Lois Dodd has made a painterly Walden Pond out of her back yard in Cushing, Maine, discovering abstract truths through loving, yet unsentimental observation of the facts of nature.  Images of female nudes at garden work, of wild flowers, of washing on a clothesline, reveal an unpretentious realist with a nonetheless unfailing knack of grasping primal otherness in her natural and human surroundings. 

She has a miraculous touch, entirely her own, that confounds the viewer’s sense of its speed of vision or execution.  She seems to look long and hard, and yet to pounce at her images like some kind of predatory insect—the operative simile for a painter obsessed with flora.  She has a love of offbeat images that don’t immediately reveal their motif, forcing instead a fresh look at the familiar.

There is great variety in “Summer”, the second in a back-to-back two part survey at Alexandre of recent work (“Winter” was reviewed by John Goodrich in these pages last month.)  Some works, like “Belfast, June,” (2001) an oil sketch on masonite, shows her having fun with the brush without giving in to any kind of bravura splurge.  It also shows her at her closest to Fairfield Porter and Alex Katz, but with an attention to contrasting effects of light on verdure and stone that is unique to herself.  Then, in “Spider Web with Clover and Grass,” (2004), in oil on linen, there is a whole different texture and temperature.  The chalky, rubbed-away quality of the paint casts a veil across the screen of vision, evoking a sense of morning dew. 

Ms. Dodd is an artist who gets into the nitty gritty of things without submitting to fuss, who deals in both essences and specifics. At once meticulous and spontaneous, botanically or anatomically detailed and compositionally selective, her quirky images never seem contrived.

Talk about art that fuses abstraction and figuration and you could be describing any number of academic painters at work today.  But Ms. Dodd offers a salad, not a soup, of these contrastive views of the world.   She is all about a visual rapport with the things and sensations about her, and you can immediately sense that she works directly from nature, but at the same time a metaphysical delight in hidden geometries comes through, not to mention a modernist’s vindication of the autonomy of formal means.  She has an uncanny ability to make each brushstroke seem individual while it still does the traditional jobs of modeling volumes and blending planes.

With her literal and metaphorical “carpentry” she is as much a constructivist as a realist.  She revels in the material support, which is as often plywood, masonite or oddball choices (though not in this show) like roofing tiles as it is conventional linen or canvas.  When she uses ply, the woodiness of the support shines through, in grain or exposed areas.  She seems drawn towards things in the world that depend on sturdy, functionalist, “honest” woodwork as if they are a metaphor of her own endeavor: timeless, unpretentious, in the moment, “real.”  Frequently she paints wheelbarrows, a staircase in a half-abandoned construction site,  wood piles.  Even washing on a line becomes a metaphor as much as a motif: A seemingly arbitrary order determined by intuitive common sense.  And then there is the boxiness of her figures, which are almost like lay figures or toys, in their building-block stockiness, and yet have anatomical credibility and a mischevious individuality—busy at work or play rather than passively posing. 

Brad Kahlhamer Urban Prairie Girls 2005
ink on paper, 10 works, 23 x 32 inches each
Courtesy Deitch Projects

Ms. Dodd paints female nudes without a hint either of prurience or idealism. No one would make the same claim for Brad Kahlmamer, whose third solo exhibition at Deitch Projects in SoHo has the indicative title, “Girls and Skulls.”   His weltanschauung is more “Guns and Roses” than Walden Pond. 

And yet there can be no denying that Mr. Kahlmamer is a force of nature—and an artistic dynamo.  He draws lovingly idealised, achingly pretty young women, usually in fishnets and skimpy dresses, sporting rifles and disporting themselves with skulls, in poses that veer between langour and raunch. His three “Urban Prairie Girls” series, hung in dense blocks of ten 23 by 32 inch pages, are packed with scrawled lettering and frenetic sprays of ink that convey references to Native American and Wild West culture with the intensity and relentlessness of an outsider artist. His raucous, febrile meditations on sex and death have an uncanny ability to sustain libido and spleen, achieving formal and emotional all-overness. 

This show is in harmony with the persistent teenagerism of the Deitch Projects program, but Mr. Kahlhamer’s perverse mastery sets him apart.The furious, Dionysian abandon of his scrawl submits to a dissipated gestalt worthy of Cy Twombly, while miraculous moments of unexpected finesse in his ink bleeds recall Rouault’s luminous watercolors.

Mr. Kahlhamer claims personal kinship with the sitters, whom he meets (Lautrec-style) in New York bars; he is also about to publish a book of interviews with them. At the same time, they seem like stereotypical girlie-magazine models who are figments of an unappeased longings. There is a cold relentlessness in their prettiness that belies his manifest ardor. But Mr. Kahlhamer turns this seeming lack of empathy to expressive advantage, adding an element of white-trash desperation to an art about pathos and alienation.

Tom Birkner Stang 2006
oil on canvas, 48 x 78-1/2 inches
Courtesy DFN Gallery, New York

Descend further downtown to Tribeca’s DFN Gallery and you’ll encounter echoes of Mr. Kahlhamer’s blue collar, adolescent libido shared between a pair of solo shows by realist painters Tom Birkner and John Hardy.

Mr. Hardy offers a footnote update to Hopper, introducing that painter of modern life to oversexed billboards and cell phones.  He milks these themes a little dry but his images have ingenuity and charm. As virtually every pedestrian on a New York street jabbers away the giant personages in the  billboards above them humorously pick up the conversational banalities in a secondary narrative of cross-communication.  The “I need to see you” of a raunchy blonde toweling herself after a shower is answered across the street with “I can’t speak now” from a man with his mistress in another ad. 

Mr. Birkner’s sharply observed, chromatically inventive, compositionally ambitious social scenes have a slow-burning sexuality that rhymes with the bluesy resignation of the depressed towns, threatening freeway encounters and despondent, proletarian amusements he depicts.  He captures the sublimated, low-octane eroticism of sweating women absurdly dressed for the Mermaid Parade, and the earthgoddess defiance of a surly “Jersey girl” in an auto repair lot. 

He saves his sensual painterly best, however, for the meticulously observed reflections in the metallic and glass surfaces of “’Stang” (2006).  The car window provocatively bisects the female driver’s head, while the blue fender twists the surrounding buildings into exotic serpentine shapes.  Car and driver unite to lure the viewer away from a desolate company town that’s lost its company.

Dodd until March 25 (41 East 57 Street at Madison Avenue, 212 755 2828)

Kahlmamer until April 1 (76 Grand Street at Wooster Street, 212 343 7300)

Hard, Birkner until April 8 (176 Franklin Street between Greenwich and Hudson, 12-334-3400)

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