Monday, March 30th, 2015

Orientation Games: Getting the Hang of a Painting by Kazimira Rachfal

This essay, written in 2013, describes the author’s dilemmas in determining the placement of a painting by Kazimira Rachfal. It is published here on the occasion of the artist’s exhibition of new work, “Space is Big… Really Big,” at Janet Kurnatowski Gallery through April 26, 2015.

Installation view of Kazimira Rachfal: Space is Big...Really Big at Janet Kurnatowski Gallery, 2015
Installation view of Kazimira Rachfal: Space is Big…Really Big at Janet Kurnatowski Gallery, 2015

It is odd that a work of art can exude an aura of assurance, indeed of meditative presence and calm, and yet constitute a problem. That it can be, oxymoronically, a carefree anxious object. And yet that is the state I have imposed on a Kazimira Rachfal, hanging — if that is the right word for a painting that is in fact propped — a few feet from my writing table. I was lent the work to have it in my possession as I write about the artist. But I neglected to take proper note of its correct orientation when I abducted it from the worktable where it was born. As yet unsigned or documented on its reverse, the piece does not offer official clues — the imprimatur of formal intention — to settle the matter.

And then I confused things further by deciding to “hang” it in such an irregular fashion. A freestanding, white-painted steel staircase that leads to the mezzanine bedroom in my apartment, hand milled in Brooklyn, is like some kind of constructivist sculpture, with a pair of heavy yet floating triangles supporting and encasing the treads. One flank, at right angles to my desk, sports vertical and horizontal strips that link outer beams to a circular aperture (its wobbly shape inspired by the cover of a book on le Corbusier). This loose grid comprises a favorite spot for intimate, object-like pictures — works on board, for instance, or canvases on stretchers almost as deep as they are wide, or pieces set in hefty frames.

Kazimira Rachfal, Agni's Secret Name, 2013, installed on David Cohen's staircase. Photograph: The artist
Kazimira Rachfal, Agni’s Secret Name, 2013, installed on David Cohen’s staircase. Photograph: The artist

The sturdy little Rachfal, as unapologetic about its means of support as is its new staircase habitat’s, lends itself to creative misplacement. It can hang true, an arbitrarily determined side flush with a vertical metal element and its opposite corner pivoting on the diagonal undercarriage. But it can also submit to the diagonal logic of the stairs and live at 45 degrees. Refusing to behave politely as a picture on the wall, the painting thus hung insists more fully on engagement with its composition. Or else it becomes a different composition, an unintended diamond-shaped painting. Or, a third option, tilting back in my office chair, I too can enter this diagonal universe, the painting and I finding ourselves in anti-gravitational intimacy.

Picasso is said to have hung a favorite Matisse in his collection at an irregular angle. This forced him, he said, to look at it afresh each time the painting caught his eye, never to allow it to sink into the furnishings. Being Picasso, some half-gentle knock to his rival/friend was also entailed. Whether Matisse or Rachfal, a subversive hang manages both to objectify and elevate. The owner is more conscious that the picture is a thing when it is hung wrong but can become blasé about the image when it is hung right.

A Matisse a kilter is different from a Rachfal askew, however, in that Matisse is more evidently representational (the Picasso anecdote refers, I think, to Matisse’s Portrait of Marguerite, 1906). But abstraction only makes the orientation of the “figure” in Rachfal more acute, if not axiomatic. My Rachfal “depicts” a blue shape on a black ground. (The way black wraps around the sides of the board further grounds image to object.) The steely gray blue is an irregular rectangle. Viewed in what I half-know to be the right way up—based on memory, knowledge of her oeuvre, and a modicum of visual intelligence—the shape’s right side bends out a little (an eighth of an inch closer to the painting’s edge at the top than the base), its crown sliced off at a bowed diagonal. It can be read as a window with a drooping blind, perhaps, while inverted, the same shape could be the blade of a guillotine.

The thing, in other words, is ambivalent about its own abstractness — whether between association and purity or within each. As a geometric shape it seems specific yet is too prone to variables to be nameable. It is involved, in Laura Hunt’s phrase, in an “imaginary mathematics.” It is elusive without being ethereal. Neither platonic nor empirical, it has the energy of describing without being descriptive and has absoluteness without fixity.

Kazimira Rachfal, on god's great knee, 2014. Oil on canvas, 14 x 11 inches. Courtesy of Janet Kurnatowski Gallery
Kazimira Rachfal, on god’s great knee, 2014. Oil on canvas, 14 x 11 inches. Courtesy of Janet Kurnatowski Gallery

The painting is as hard to orient conceptually or stylistically as it is compositionally. Contemporary taste offers antimonies as a grid within which to place an individual artist’s aesthetic intentions. Thus, for instance, the prevailing fashion for “provisional” painting has resolution as its polar opposite. Expressive handling is at one end of a dichotomy where at the other is cool, detached treatment of a surface. Purism counters “personalism”. But Rachfal’s delectably obstinate image confounds any graph constructed from such opposites. There is a slow-cooked deliberation to the surface that is the opposite of slickness and yet is marvelously, placidly settled in its own way, quite devoid of any feeling of being tentative, unsure. Just shy of simplistic, her shape eludes heraldry or schemata. Emotionally poignant in its handcraftedness, it is nonetheless free of expressionism.

Placed on the diagonal, Rachfal’s little black square inevitably recalls the historic photograph of Malevich’s progenitor installed in his Exhibition 0,10 of 1915. Its position in the corner of a crowded salon hang was calculated, as we all know, to remind Russians of traditional domestic placement of icons. Icon painting feels pertinent to Rachfal’s potent mix of investment and detachment.

Not knowing which way to hang the work keeps the eye and mind engaged, but finding in the process that it works wonders in any direction gives it its own gravity. Many an abstract painting should wish for such a problem, to be its own sun within the universe.

Installation shot of three works, each 9 x 9 inches, 2014, in the exhibition under review
click to enlarge