Subversive Methods: Kianja Strobert at the Studio Museum in Harlem
Kianja Strobert: Of This Day In Time at The Studio Museum in Harlem
November 13, 2014 through March 8, 2015
144 West 125th Street (between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Malcolm X boulevards)
New York, 212 864 4500
“Of This Day in Time,” at the Studio Museum in Harlem through March 8, 2015, is the first major New York exhibition of the work of artist Kianja Strobert. In the tradition of Klein and Dubuffet, Strobert chooses to site her artistic practice within the confines of painting, while literally doing everything she can to reconfigure that discipline through a re-orientation of mediums and with an expressionistic yet pragmatic eye.
Like a passage from Aeschylus, Strobert’s Untitled (2010) is a raw and epic cartography of emotion and a historical narrative. The composition is simple enough: a cloudburst of silvers, whites and grays, which is decadent in its simplicity, like the old Bourbon flag of pure white. Applied to the bottom left quadrant, four gold-painted chicken bones embody the artist’s fascination with the “realness” of her media — the idea of expanding her stable of materials to the unexpected and atypical, including crumbled pumice stone, fruit skin, and in this piece, bones. In the face of the silver and white, the golden bones — one is green with gold highlights, seemingly in imitation of the gilded bronze of a classical cast — are suggestive of a reliquary. The whole assemblage speaks of ritual, art of immediate necessity rather than quiet pondering or decoration.
Strobert’s painting isn’t abstract painting but the abstraction of painting. She is on a search for its origins; painting as practical magic, the prosaic made ecstatic, and self-portrait in its most basic sense as a trace of its author. Many of the works bear the insignia of the artist herself, the above-mentioned Untitled (2010) departs from its opulent palette with two red fingerprints — a pair of red dots in a rectangle at the lower right hand corner that stand in as signature, blood contract or even eyes. A series of four paintings, all Untitled (each 2011), follows the format of enclosing yellow border; upper quadrant, or sky, of graphite dust; and a lower half of mostly brown, orange and ochre blots and smudges. Many of the active forms at bottom are marks made with the artist’s hands — finger streaks and thick, blobby prints. Beyond the literal application of paint, the strokes and gestures are at odds with the brush or pen. In this series of paintings the careful, regulating geometry of the precise and crisp straight-edge border, and the repeated texture and ordering of the colors is at odds with the spontaneity of the gesture, merging the genres of abstract landscape, diagram and portrait.
Archaism and Ecstasy (2014) and Taurus II (2014) employ alternative methods to subvert the artist’s tools: the gestures have a troweled-on quality, the strokes again have the singular nature of a finger motion, but almost as if the artist were a giant. The motions are smooth. But, bulked up with the pumice or some other filler material, the gestures are accretive and encrusted: artful while distancing themselves from the smooth artificiality of the brush, but not necessarily jettisoning its delicacy or poise as an instrument.
Often the use of a base — canvas, linen, or in this case, paper — seems so inevitable as to be arbitrary. It falls into a preordained hierarchy, i.e. paper for drawings and canvas for painting; here all paintings are on paper, and the choice is steadfastly self-conscious. Strobert chooses paper in order to torture the substrate, to watch it suffer as with each coating of acrylic, oil and matte-medium-infused pumice dust, the thick watercolor paper strains with the weight and buckles under the varying constraints of mediums that contract to differing degrees as they dry. This is paper that is not allowed to be an indifferent and neutral foundation and it begs the question of why we assume the substrate in a painting must be flat and indifferent to its various layers and coatings. The same holds true for the mediums themselves. The non-traditional materials Strobert employs — powdered graphite, pumice, papier-mâché and glitter among others — all have visual signatures as distinctive as the bulbous shine of oil paint or the transparent skeins of gouache. They very literally represent an earthier side of image making that enlists the grit and sparkle that exists in minerals, dirt and flesh, but that somehow crosses the line of acceptable representation. Strobert’s work inhabits a region outside of the neat requirements of traditional painting, and though her work is across the board contained in perfect box frames, ironically these only serve to reinforce the unpredictability of her use of medium.