Bowery Gallery:   Deborah Kahn: Paintngs   April 21 - May 16, 2015      


oil on canvas
38 x 36 in

The titles of Deborah Kahn’s paintings (“Figure Group Orange,” “Circular Form with Figures”) are straightforward enough. So is her style; her abstracted figure compositions, with their somewhat austere forms but richly textured yellows and blue-greens, punctuated by intense reds, bring to mind the Trecento frescos of Giotto and the Lorenzettis. But neither titles nor style explain the peculiar power of her paintings currently at Bowery Gallery, which seem to me her strongest work yet. (Disclosure: as a fellow member of Bowery, I’ve known the artist for many years.)

Kahn vigorously characterizes the elements within these scenes, not through illustrative descriptions but through pictorial events. What does this mean? Simply put, if you look at the paintings and absorb their most elemental effect – the impact of their colors and the intervals between them – you’ll gain, sooner or later, an uncanny sense of presences filling the surface, and even your relationship to them. Kahn’s colors are keenly active, not in simply pushing forward and back, but in their pressures across the surface. They turn her compositions into spacious but tightly-knit meshes, with each color – whether spreading as open space, condensing as detail, or connecting as a tensile gesture – leveraging the next. Certain idioms prevail in these paintings, such as the sequences of twisting torsos, palpably at one’s eye level, with heads tangibly above, turning this way and that, and the legs flowing inexorably towards the canvas’ lower edge, upon which they often rest. Spend time with these images, and you’ll realize that nothing exists except through color impulses; pictorial conviction so eclipses literalistic rendering that a single vertical may just as adamantly support, at the same time, the bodies of a human and a horse.

“Floating” (2015) establishes broad regions with its first planes of color. The rich, retiring blue-greens of an interior’s shadowy walls abruptly give way to a window of curiously remote pale yellow. Leaning in the window, curving muscularly through the intersection of spaces, a woman releases a child to the floor. All is stylized, unnatural: the woman’s skintones glint snow-white, her facial features compressed to tiny lines; the child’s form descends in acid-yellow hues. But the tenderness of gestures comes amply through, as the child, toes stretching, slips from the protective frame of the mother. Elasticizing the interior space, four additional figures of varying hue – flaming red, dense red-purple, muted mauve-brown – spell out its intervals, so walls stretch vividly above and below. One senses an animate world, re-created in a subtle but primal language of color and form.

Locating details within the tides of color – whether they’re passive islands, deflecting nodes, or resonant terminations – might be considered the supreme test for a colorist. Among the revelations of Kahn’s recent work are the small colored elements that anchor larger movements, imparting scale to both. In the larger of two canvases from 2014 titled “After Ingres,” two small heads rise simultaneously – yet minutely varied in attitude – from their massed bodies. The bright background poignantly silhouettes the visual conversation between the two. Meanwhile, a lone foot drifts downwards, a discrete wedge of deep, warm pink that just punctures the broad yellow swath of floor.

Not every painting here unfolds with such intensity, but the many that do make the show a memorable experience. Kahn has risked much – the danger of ending up with just stylistically or conceptually re-upholstered Giotto. But these works are neither evocatively fitted-out illustrations nor concept-laden tableaux. As paintings they’re the real deal, conjuring visions of life out of the medium’s most elemental forces.

Bowery Gallery
530 W 25 Street, New Kork NY 12534
646.230.6655 · www.bowerygallery.org