Over the next several weeks, two remarkable artists are publicly showing their most recent work, each demonstrating that her already well-established powers continue to grow.
Eight of Kathleen Graves’s newest images anchor an exhibit called “Papertails” at the 80WSE Gallery in Manhattan. The exhibit celebrates the virtuosity of paper as an artistic medium, featuring the work of fourteen artists –print makers, collagists, photographers, and painters among them—whose work reflects reverence (in the curators’ words) for “the endless potential of the physical surface of paper.”
Graves offers us an intriguing combination. She is a pantheist who fully embraces electronic technology. Printing, for her, is a process in which her papers, “big, gaudy things,” organically embrace the ink spreading into them, their fabric-like weight and textural white surfaces breathing in her precise, electronically determined images –images of which Graves is benignly, ferociously in control.
Far from simply appreciating gardens, as her reverence for Nature might suggest, she interrogates them. And she imagines replies from fanciful, yet hard-headed nanobots who dwell in them, who may “clothe themselves as roses” but are worthy interlocutors in such debates as how we live in modern society, tread on earth’s limited resources, and warp its climate. Graves calls herself a “Beatrice confined (at least for now) to lush gardens where many plants are poisonous,” where she needs “to sort out apparent dangers.” Beyond Dante’s or Shakespeare’s, perhaps the Beatrice she most resembles is Hawthorne’s Beatrice Rappaccini: Is she corruptress of the Edenlike garden to which she is confined, or merely an intimate, postlapsarian witness?
In each of her bucolic garden images, Graves’s “bots,” these garden-bound techno-sprites, make their presence known in subtly distortive ways. In her Bot #9, immense roses hover over a brook, and cast their shadows on it like alien explorers. Each airborne rose contains, at its reproductive center, a complex, minute web of inaccessible golden strands encased in an amber droplet. In Bot #8, a pastoral image of wildflowers, bushes and trees is encroached upon from its corners by hints of solar flame that has congealed and a land mass that is frozen.
In Bot #6, two forms in brilliant reddish orange --one undulant, snakelike, the other like partly unravelled yarn—and two others, nearly transparent green and black shapes like the blades of chainsaws, impose themselves over a commonplace bed of daisies. Bot #2 imposes a refractive, vase-like shape over the middle ground of an unkempt garden, surrounded by small, hovering, insect-like white petal-clusters.
In each image, undeniable beauty possesses –because Kathleen Graves insists it needs—“a counterpoint, a little thorn, a sting.” Yet each of her images, in its colors, its textures, and its embedded intentions, is both beautiful and vivid. Graves’s artistry is compelling.
These images and several others, along with those of Francesco Clemente, Valerie Hammond and Kiki Smith (the exhibit’s co-curators), Rachel Ostrow and nine other elegant artists on paper are on view from September 14th through November 5th at the 80WSE Gallery, located (not surprisingly) at 80 Washington Square East in Greenwich Village. The Gallery is open from Tuesday through Saturday, 10:30am – 6pm.
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Meanwhile in London, preparing to open on the 5th of October, is the latest showing of the highly regarded Los Angeles photographer, Mona Kuhn. Like Kathleen Graves, Kuhn is also engaged in dialogue: in her case, ongoing dialogues with the human body, with landscape, and with the delicate equilibrium between the two.
Her exhibit, Bordeaux Series, offers an immaculate combination of nude color portraits and black-and-white paysages taken in and around her rustic summer escape near Bordeaux, many time zones away. The place provides Kuhn and her models –friends mostly, and friends of friends—“a parallel reality” Thoreauvian in its modesty but intensely communal in which her photography becomes a collaborative venture amongst an extended family. But there’s no mistaking who’s in charge of the Hasselblad.
Mona Kuhn’s portraits exemplify a distinction made long ago by Robert Graves between “the naked and the nude. . . [which] stand as wide apart / As love from lies and truth from art.” Objectively, both are a state of undress, yet the penumbras of connotation they cast are decidedly different. “To be ‘naked’,” wrote Kenneth Clark, “is to be deprived of our clothes” –with implications of embarrassment and vulnerability. Nudes on the other hand -- in every figurative medium since ancient times-- bear no uncomfortable overtone (save for the excessively pious). Nudes are confident bodies, temples for the ostensibly well-balanced selves within. Nudity is nakedness apotheosized: transformed into a more nearly perfect state. It carries, in Kuhn’s subjects, an unselfconscious aura of the ideal: whether of beauty or harmony, the athletic, the erotic, or the triumphantly mundane.
“Each of us learns with time,” Kuhn says, “how to deal with the physical body we’re given. That’s the perspective from which I’m interested in nudes. . . of all ages, as we bloom and as we decay.” She admits, in this regard, to two artistic influences just beneath the surface of her Bordeaux Series: Klimt’s “Three Generation Females,” and Gauguin’s huge mural “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” “That,” says Kuhn, “summarizes questions we all have, and provides a worthy creative starting point.”
That said, it’s equally true that as we all deal with our bodies, so too they deal with us, enabling our behaviours, signalling our thoughts, expressing our moods. Ultimately they betray us. Taken together, Kuhn’s nudes in this exhibit are expressive to a fault. No longer, as in her earlier work, are they shot through windows or abstracted behind extremely soft focus, as though seen peripherally, or with hinted mystery. Here they call to mind Saul Bellow’s Tommy Wilhelm who, caught in a crowd, sees with startling clarity “on every face the refinement of one particular motive or essence –I labor, I spend, I strive, I design, I love, I cling, I uphold, I give way, I envy, I long, I scorn, I die, I hide, I want.” The face of each of Kuhn’s nude models is similarly alive. She doesn’t pose them. They’re on their own. In them, there’s languor, detachment, quizzicality, pride, indolence, self-satisfaction, uncertainty.
The expression of slight bemusement evident in Portrait 42 is worn by an exquisite young Alice who, as though perplexed once more in the anteroom to Wonderland, has both grown up and outgrown the magical one-armed chair that would have fit her perfectly a moment, or a decade earlier, before she ate of the apple. That chair (or several similar ones) is one of Kuhn’s few props, appearing throughout the Series, now larger, now smaller, at times with two arms, at others one. Her other main prop is a large, florally patterned fabric in rich burgundy, a backdrop that lends its own hint of muted eroticism to the images in a way that a green or blue one, say, would not. That Kuhn’s human subjects are unclothed simply adds to the emotional mix, as though each of them, young or old, is caught in an atypical instant, on his or her way to some unforeseeable destiny.
Unquestionably, a handful of her portraits –several nude children, a young pubescent girl-- flout conventional taboo, tangentially evoking the work of Sally Mann, Richard Hamilton or Jock Sturges. In Kuhn’s Portrait 41 (they bear no other titles), a mother wraps her arms protectively around her prepubescent daughter, who wears a look of slightly weary innocence; while in #40 an older sister stands alone, as finally she must in life, her wet hair and budding breasts suggesting she has already, at least tentatively, become immersed in it. Her gaze is wary. While galleries, like the host for this exhibit, debate these days what can “safely” be hung, Kuhn persuasively demonstrates that nudes that are fully realized aesthetically are no more prurient than blades of grass.
While each nude portrait in the Bordeaux Series, shot in the same bare room, is sumptuously chromatic, her landscapes, more extensive in scope, are paradoxically in black and white --and taken mostly in stormy or threatening weather in forested terrain. Some are small, in size identical to the 15x15 inch format of the nudes. Others are large, in a 3x6 foot format. In several cases, nude and landscape are effectively juxtaposed: the facial close-up of the young woman, aspiration writ large in her hazel eyes, shows her seemingly forewarned by the image of the turbulent storm clouds adjacent to her.
And while the exhibit only sparingly engages in such “cinematic” conjunctions, the newly published album that accompanies the exhibit does so repeatedly, and to powerful effect. As with Kuhn’s earlier exhibits, the German publishing house, Steidl, have concurrently released Mona Kuhn: Bordeaux Series/Série Bordeaux in a handsome, hardbound edition. On facing pages, we see a nude preadolescent, prematurely seductive, alongside an austere, well-worn stone wall out of which, in singular clear focus, grows a single white daisy. A few pages earlier, a young woman, sceptical of visage, looks across the page toward a forest path under a tunnel of trees leading toward a tiny patch of visible sunlight. (A number of Kuhn’s paysages show deeply shadowed pathways leading toward a bright opening in the distance.) Elsewhere, the pensive nude (at right) draws even greater character from the depth of the forest pond across the page from her (at left), while the reflection of a distant tree creates her inverted shadow double on its surface.
But while such characterizations emerge editorially from a volume exquisitely produced, they are secondary, really, to the extraordinary images themselves.
Mona Kuhn’s Bordeaux Series appears at the Flowers Gallery, 21 Cork Street, in London, from October 5th through the 29th. See www.flowersgalleries.com. It moves thereafter to New York and Los Angeles. Selections from Kuhn's earlier work can be seen at www.monakuhn.com, and in the Mona Kuhn volumes published by Steidl: www.steidlville.com.
WALTER WELLS, founding editor of The Fickle Grey Beast, was awarded the 2009 Umhoefer Prize for Achievement in the Arts and Humanities for his book, Silent Theater: The Art of Edward Hopper. He is Emeritus Professor of English and Humanities at the California State University, Dominguez Hills, and now lives in London.