Undercurrent: Cole Case and Joan Kahn by David Pagel

This little exhibition does just what each of its artist’s paintings do: stop you in your tracks and make you wonder: What’s going on? That’s what a lot of great art does, and has done for hundreds of years. Today, we don’t often take the time—or make the effort—to look carefully and, more important, give ourselves the chance to change our minds about what we are seeing.

The fast pace of modern life makes such slow-motion mulling difficult. People seem to prefer to know things in an instant—or quicker—and to be absolutely certain about them. The instantaneousness made possible by up-to-the-minute technology rarely allows for our first impressions to mature into experiences more complex—and contradictory—than quick reads. This leaves little time, and space, for the psychological resonance of ambivalence.

Many years ago, Ed Ruscha put his finger on the amount of time art requires by saying that works generally function in one of two ways, either inducing a “Wow! Huh?” experience or a “Huh? Wow!” one. Works that fall into the first category grab one’s eyes with impressive razzle-dazzle but, all too quickly, leave viewers scratching our heads when we begin to look for deeper meaning, lasting affect, real consequences. The latter, in contrast, don’t seem to make any sense, at least on first glance. But then the “Wow!” happens. Not because of the art’s flashy effects on our retinas, but because of what transpires inside us, when the insight of enlightenment flashes across consciousness, changing the way we see things and, consequently, rearranging our relationship to the world around us.

That’s exactly what happens when you walk into “Undercurrent: The Paintings of Cole Case and Joan Kahn,” which has been deftly—even devilishly—organized by Robert Miller. Case’s figurative pictures and Kahn’s geometric abstractions appear to have so little in common with each other that their pairing seems random, an accident of scheduling rather than a purposefully conceived plan. From the get go, the “Huh?” phase of Ruscha’s account is in full swing.

You’ve no choice but to give up on the idea of the exhibition as a neatly packaged, easily summarized, and readily consumed whole. Instead, you must jump right into one of the worlds made palpable and present by each artist’s paintings. It doesn’t matter where you start; there will be time, later, for back-and-forth, mix-and-match, compare-and-contrast. To proceed alphabetically: Case’s beautifully simplified pictures of everyday objects and urban landscapes generate the same head-scratching incomprehension with which the exhibition begins. Coherence and consistency—in terms of subject matter, narrative, and scale, not to mention paint handling, palette, and texture—are not to be found in these paintings. What holds them together, as resolved compositions, is the style in which Case has painted them: the clunky but far from crude simplicity of a talented fifth-grade boy, whose class-time daydreams are not far-fetched, preposterous, or outlandish—in their fixation on explosions, monsters, and vixens—but actually sweet, gentle, and heart-warming. Such endearing, some would say innocent daydreams suggest a consciousness that is acutely aware of its surroundings but blithely unconcerned with the social expectations others bring to them. Peer pressure, parental approval, and institutional endorsement (i.e., good grades) hold very little sway in the world of Case’s paintings, where the imagination wanders freely, unfettered by the constraints propagated and maintained by grown-ups. The dumb loveliness of unselfconscious obviousness, which is just about impossible to fake, reverberates in these idiosyncratic pictures, which are anything but naïve.

Matisse’s dream—that his art be a comfy chair people could fall into at the end of a dissatisfying day—takes shape in Case’s paintings, from the point of view of a kid who loves “Hot Wheels” race cars and episodes of “Star Trek.” What Matisse characterized as luxury, calm and pleasure (in French: “Luxe, Calme et Volupte”), Case sees as taking a break, kicking back and relaxing, daydreaming while playing. Through his 21st-century eyes, imaginative transport is no more exotic or hard to come by than picturing a world of fun-filled adventures and then inhabiting it, fully and completely and with the matter-of-fact earnestness of someone who knows that it can be done—and must be.

The world Case’s paintings open up includes the wide-eyed excitement of an adolescent’s discovery of modern art—filtered through adult memories of those unforgettable experiences and their scarcity in the present. Some of the highlights: the thrill of seeing Henri Rousseau’s enchanted fantasies of voluptuous jungles, their cartoon approachability right on the money; the sly wildness of Rene Magritte’s mind-bending Realism, its off-balanced oddness freshly mesmerizing; and the intimate anonymity of Vincent Van Gogh’s leather shoes, whose modest dimensions make their fatalism all the more harrowing. In terms of time, Case’s paintings have one foot firmly planted in each of two moments: the lolling laziness of Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte and the soul-crushing endlessness (eternity’s deadly downside) of Edouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergere. Such sentiments have all but disappeared from art that only wants to look cool, its analytic detachment masquerading as objectivity. Deeply suspicious of such narrow-minded knowledge, Case’s paintings make a place for the “Huh?” so that that the “Wow!” is more powerful.

The “Huh?” Kahn’s paintings elicit sneaks up on you more slowly: more gradually and gracefully than it does with Case’s paintings and even more subtly and sensually than is suggested by Ruscha’s more abrupt, all-or-nothing account. From across the gallery, Kahn’s hardedge panels appear to be pretty standard geometric abstractions: sensible arrangements of overlapping planes of thoughtfully chosen colors that form satisfying compositions because they settle, comfortably (as if into their own armchairs), into tightly designed setups that leave little room for eccentricity (or fluid, circuitous movement), because their loyalties lie with the rigor of logic, the regularity of pattern, and the rationality of math, not to mention the tried-and-true virtues of hard work, patience, and emotionally restrained orderliness.

Kahn’s paintings are all that and more—much, much more. You don’t need to be a hardcore hedonist to see that their dedication to pleasure, with a capital “P,” outdistances their love of order. To spend 15 seconds with any of these paintings is to feel the lovely hum of the woodgrain, a kind of organic drawing formed by the peculiar confluence of minerals, liquids, and fibers. These gorgeous patterns, in birch, cherry, and mahogany, would not be visible if trees had not been cut down, sawed into useful sections, and sanded into smoothly surfaced planks, which humans use for homes and furniture, among many other things. So, from the get go, destruction is built into the picture. The poignancy of loss, and the decisiveness of un-idealized life, ground Kahn’s paintings in the real world, miles away from the utopian fantasies with which geometric abstraction is often confused. Beauty leaves the dreamland of Platonic perfection for the nitty-gritty vicissitudes of the real thing. In Kahn’s hands, precision has nothing to do with transcendence: It is down-to-earth and sensuous, as physically gratifying as it is emotionally stirring and intellectually stimulating.

Kahn’s paintings do not graft art, as some kind of high-minded, otherworldly interloper, onto organic substances. They begin where the work of the woodcutters ends. As a painter, Kahn enhances the casually elegant fluidity of the woodgrain’s patterns, first by selecting panels whose complexity speaks to her memories of the landscapes where she has lived: Vermont, Wisconsin, New York, Paris, Italy, and California; and then by applying variously translucent layers of deliciously tinted varnishes until some kind of intuitive resolution is reached, discovered, or stumbled upon. This resolution is always idiosyncratic, the pace and pulse of its constitutive shapes and spaces lively and dynamic. Some seem to breathe, as if their atmospheric expanses have lives all their own.

The colors Kahn mixes may appear in nature, but their intensity and combination and layout are a matter of artifice at its best: an endeavor that heightens one’s attentiveness to the littlest of details and, in so doing, strengthens the bonds between humans and every element of our surroundings, whether they are handmade, machine-fabricated, grown naturally, or chemically engineered. There is no such thing as unnatural in the world Kahn’s paintings invite us into. The only thing her profoundly optimistic art frowns on is stopping things short, before they get going; in cutting thought off, before it has a chance to take off; in ruling out experiences before we have had them because we think we know what they might be like. The “Wow!” Kahn’s works deliver arrives like a whisper that never stops echoing.

Kahn’s dreamy yet realistic abstractions and Case’s miniature murals each make the space and the time for viewers to change our minds, to experience ambivalence, to live in the present while remembering the past. Together, they make up an exhibition that does that in spades, driving home the point that firsthand experience trumps secondhand information every day of the week. By telling us nothing, but showing us all its got, “Undercurrent: The Paintings of Cole Case and Joan Kahn” insists that we look for ourselves, and see for ourselves, and make up our own minds. The risk is misunderstanding. But the reward is knowing, personally and powerfully and profoundly, that it’s far more exciting to live in a world where things change than in one where nothing does.

David Pagel, Los Angeles 2014

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