Visual Art Mysterious Broadcasts
posted by January 24 at 11:30 AMon
Ken Kelly’s Theory, oil and enamel on canvas, 2007
Behind the desk at James Harris Gallery hangs a dirty-white painting by Squeak Carnwath that reads, in pencil scrawl in the center, “Painting is no ordinary object.” Right-o. A painting is an extraordinary thing. Or: painting is a verb, not a noun. Fine. Whatever. While you’re trying on the various attitudes toward painting, Carnwath’s scratchy, splotchy surface, with its assertions, glitches, and erasures, takes over. Painting always wins. A writer I know says painting never dies because, deep down, we love it so much that we want it to succeed.
It’s painting month at the major galleries in Seattle—a rarity: Adam Sorensen’s semi-toxic/semisweet landscapes painted on thin pieces of panel and Claire Cowie’s watercolors are at James Harris, Darren Waterston’s smooth apocalypses and Katy Stone’s painted Mylar stacks are at Greg Kucera; Lawrimore Project is showing Prom: A Semi-Formal Survey of Semi-Formal Painting; and Howard House recently opened with new abstractions by Ken Kelly.
Of all these (though admittedly I haven’t been yet to The Prom), Kelly’s laconic paintings draw me in. His restricted palette (red, black, white, and tones of these) and repetitive grids of little rectangles are out of step with fashionable (and, often, let’s face it, fun to look at) psychedelia and pictorialism. They’re also a departure from his signature style, which set slick stenciled imagery on thick, heavily worked surfaces—a style he cultivated for almost 15 years.
Now, the Seattle painter’s new works are portraits of patterns, or to be more evocative, systems, painted by hand in rows of dots of varying sizes that seem to stream across the surface of the paintings like encoded back-end information. They fuse the digital, the modern, and the ancient, and they also provide a recording of the decisions that went into making the painting.
The grids—strictly geometric from afar but blurry and idiosyncratic up close—evoke not only computer chips and early video games, but also traffic patterns, photographs of cities at night, Morse code, Native American basketry, and traditional African textiles. They also emit the surprising feeling—for grids—of having been improvised.
What’s more, like a perspective painter, Kelly applies an underlying grid before he starts making his daubs inside it. In certain paintings, he leaves the grid visible in the end, which cuts the painting visually, turning it into a seeming collage, where one segment has been excerpted from a particular world or system and the one right next to it represents another place entirely. Grouping the smaller paintings in a grid on the wall has a similar effect. Where is all this information from, and where is it going? It’s a pleasure to wonder.