Drip the Paint Fantastic
By Tom Wachunas
EXHIBIT: ACTION & ACCIDENT: Paintings by Cecily Kahn, Main Hall Art Gallery at Kent State University At Stark, 6000 Frank Ave. NW, North Canton, THROUGH NOVEMBER 30 / Gallery hours Mon.-Fri. 11 AM to 5 PM, Sat. 10 AM to Noon www.cecilykahn.com
“What goes on in abstract art is the proclaiming of aesthetic principles... It is in our own time that we have become aware of pure aesthetic considerations. Art never can be imitation.” -Hans Hoffman
The above observation by Hans Hoffman is an invitation to consider motivations and meaning in the 20th century emergence of nonobjective abstract painting. The casual viewer might understandably regard contemporary abstract art as an abandonment of the standards and definitions that had traditionally guided the art of painting. Those standards were at one point largely driven by the presumption that painting should be the skilled representation or even improvement of recognizable reality. This gave rise to centuries of masterful artifice, to be sure, but illusionism just the same, and certainly nothing that photography wouldn’t eventually accomplish.
Still, much of Modernist abstraction was not so much a forsaking of aesthetic principles as it was the inevitable liberation of the painted picture plane from the formal constraints of imitation. Painting was finally freed to declare a basic truth of itself - pigments on a flat, two-dimensional surface. By the time the Abstract Expressionists arrived during the 1950s, markmaking, which is to say the overall configuration of lines, shapes and colors, had become an intuitive process that was in effect an unashamed surrender to the substance and properties of paint, the physicality of gesture and brushstroke, and an otherwise apparent empathy with chance and accident.
These painters (as opposed to the reductive Minimalists who undermined the meaning of meaning, as it were, by rejecting emotive or metaphorical content in their works) generated a visual language of essences that transcended the duplication of incidentals from “the real world.” Think of it as evolving a highly expressive visual language comprised of many dialects.
I think of painter Cecily Kahn, a resident of Manhattan, as eloquently “speaking” a uniquely urban dialect. And while her works gathered for this exhibit indicate a kinship with the Abstract Expressionists, the surface tactility and vibrant palette of her oil paintings (aside from her nine luminously liquid gouache pieces) suggest a subcategory one might call Abstract Impressionism, as in impressions of urban energy, both visceral and evanescent.
A dominant characteristic of these paintings is the sense of tension between colors and shapes, as if suspended in moments of flux. Clusters of concentrated activity – repeated linear elements, generous daubs and dots of paint, organic shapes of varying sizes – seem to rise from and/or disappear into fields of color poured on to the surface and allowed to leave intersecting drip trails. Exclamatory patterns emerge from amorphous “background” expanses. Through it all there is a great degree of painterly wit, often evidenced by the interplay of negative and positive shapes and space.
These works draw a fascinating bead on the oscillating pulse of a sprawling island city that never sleeps. I see them as suggesting, without literally illustrating, the urban milieu – shifting topographies of mechanical traffic and pedestrian movements, the variable geography and architecture, the nearness to water. Look long enough and you might even get the sense that Kahn doesn’t just see contrasting rhythms and motion threaded through ever-present structures, but also hears ephemeral harmonies in the cacophony, and savors periods of quiet amid frenetic noise. New York, New York…there’s always melody in the mayhem.
PHOTOS, from top: untitled oil on panel; untitled oil on panel; untitled oil on panel; untitled oil on linen; Surf, oil on linen