Thursday, October 8th, 2009

Ted Kurahara: Portraits at Walter Randel Gallery

September 19 to October 22, 2009
287 Tenth Avenue, 2nd floor
(Between 26th & 27th Streets)
New York City, 212 239 3330

Double Indian Yellow 2008. Acrylic on Canvas, 2 panels, 72 x 36 inches each. Courtesy of Walter Randel Gallery
Double Indian Yellow 2008. Acrylic on Canvas, 2 panels, 72 x 36 inches each. Courtesy of Walter Randel Gallery

Born in Seattle, Ted Kurahara has lived in New York for most of his adult life.  After teaching for many years at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, he now concentrates exclusively on painting. His rigorous exercise of colors and grids find a close affinity with minimal art, but at the same time, his simple yet demanding art looks toward a contemplative vision, which may well be in keeping with his identity as an Asian-American artist. It is wise to be extremely careful, however, in declaring that Kurahara belongs to any particular category, especially for so reticent an artist; the affiliations others have claimed for Kurahara don’t always ring true. Kurahara, a mature artist at the time of minimalism’s triumph in the 1960s and ‘70s, remembers that moment in his stark offerings of paintings, whose right-edged organization make them painterly visions of what was essentially a sculptural movement. Yet if we add to that the fact that Kurahara acknowledges his interest in Malevich, we can see his production as based purely on Western developments in painting.

Perhaps as an artist Kurahara can best be compared with Agnes Martin, who was influenced by Asian thought and whose restraint is both a style and a theme. Kurahara’s interest in painting on a grid, often outlined in pencil, and using close relatives of color enables him to direct his attention to the basic attributes of both painting and spiritual discourse, which is suggested rather than openly expressed. In his Lascaux Blue and Cobalt Blue (2009), we see a vertical work that consists of two blues: the lattice of the grid has been painted a lighter, more luminous hue, while the squares inside the grids are a darker blue. The entire painting glows with a suffused light, inviting an extended gaze. One does indeed think of Malevich’s squares of pure color on seeing Kurahara’s fluid geometries, which result from careful attention to detail and present his audience with a sensibility very much in keeping with the sublime. If we are hesitant to use a term so absolute as “the absolute,” we can, even so, acknowledge the extreme philosophical drive in Kurahara’s esthetic, which presents itself in dramatic psychic terms; he calls the works in his show “portraits,” which humanize his art without taking away from their abstract power.

The impressive diptych Double Indian Yellow (2008) works similarly to Lascaux Blue and CobaltBlue (2009). Two vertical panels separated by a visible divide create a similar grid, again with the lattice containing squares, although this time the squares are larger. In Donald Kuspit’s brief text on Kurahara’s art, he asserts that the paintings adumbrate a “core self,” that is, a seamless relationship between the works’ communicative powers and the artist himself. This is most likely what lies behind the sustained purity of the paintings, which are so austere as to seem entirely self-sufficient as objects in the world. It may be singularly hard, given the independence of Kurahara’s art, to connect them to a vision of self, but, over time, that appears to be what we are meant to do. A third painting, entitled Variations Red Hues 1 (2008), 32 inches wide and 72 inches long, glows with subdued fire, presenting a lattice and squares of a deep, dark red. The repetition of the motif in Kurahara’s work should work a quiet effect on the viewer, who feels as if he has been present in a world of subtle radiance. And the geometric structure makes us realize that the artist is working in a contemporary mode, which we recognize as coming out of modernism. Remarkably, Kurahara’s “portraits” remind us of a time, not so long ago, when formal issues were both important in their own right and indicative of a meaningfulness many of today’s artists would reject. His works support the notion that even now, when art is more often conceptually driven , a formalist approach can produce lasting and meaningful results.