Color, Harmony, and the Vibrations of the Soul: Joan Kahn’s Painted Geometry by Betty Ann Brown

Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.   -Wassily Kandinsky

There is geometry in the humming of the strings, there is music in the spacing of the spheres…
 Geometry is knowledge of the eternally existent.   -Pythagoras


Joan Kahn creates elegant abstract paintings that connect the reductive tradition of High Modernism with its roots in the ancient belief that mathematics–specifically geometry–formed the basis for cosmic creation. Kahn weaves exquisite veils of color over rectangular panels of wood, so that the revealed organic surfaces, with their curving, seductive grains, produce the “voids” of the compositions. The voids are framed by simple painted shapes: lines, squares, diamonds, and ovoids. These pigmented forms sometimes anchor and overlap the open spaces. At other times, they seem to push the wood forward. Such alternation provides an optical shuttle between foreground and background that makes for subtle visual tensions in otherwise peaceful arrangements. Sensual, mysterious, and meditative, Kahn’s paintings are, without doubt, intriguingly beautiful objects.

One of the artist’s most gracefully minimal compositions is Mountain from 2005. A central yellow zone is framed by two organically curving shapes articulated by the wood grain. The revealed wood cascades past two adamant lines, a vertical red on the right-hand side and a horizontal black just below center. The black slides beneath the central citrine void that is accented with almost subliminal golden highlights. Subtle colors merge with basic mathematical shapes to create a peaceful visual oasis that invites quiet contemplation.

The question for this essay is not whether Kahn’s oeuvre has aesthetic value. Of course it does. Instead, the question is, What does the work signify? How does the artist create resonant meaning with simple geometric forms arrayed over a flat surface? The answer lies in the link between geometry and spirituality that has echoed across Western Culture for millennia. The geometry-spirituality connection, so eloquently articulated in Kahn’s paintings, began in Ancient Greece, resurfaced in the Middle Ages, echoed through the Renaissance, and found completion in Early Modern abstractions.

Ancient Greece and the Gothic Middle Ages

From the time of sixth century B.C. philosopher Pythagoras, the Greeks considered the study of mathematics, specifically geometry, to be a spiritual practice. According to Aristotle, Pythagoras and his followers were “the first to take up mathematics;” they believed that “the principles of mathematics were the principles of all things.” Indeed, Pythagoras founded a religious movement known as Pythagoreanism, which posited that geometry constituted the building blocks of the cosmic order.

Plato was strongly influenced by Pythagoras’s ideas. In his Timaeus, Plato had the eponymous character argue that the god or demiurge who created the world did so with ideal geometric forms.

Over a millennium later, an anonymous French Gothic artist illuminated the Book of Genesis with a full-page painting of God creating the earth. Divine creation was shown as a mathematical act: God holds a geometer’s compass. (Today, the manuscript illustration–which was part of a Bible and had no separate title–is known as either God as Architect of the World or Christ as Geometer.)

Another French Gothic artist, Villard de Honnecourt, depicted the contemporary belief that everything in the material world was based on geometric forms. In the line drawings of his notebook, Villard imaged equilateral triangles as the basis for the human body and a five-pointed star as the foundation for the human face.

Renaissance and Romanticism

Villard’s ideas about the geometric basis for anatomy are echoed in what may be Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous drawing, the Vitruvian Man (c. 1490). An ideally proportioned male figure stands inside a perfect circle, which is inscribed in an equally perfect square. Leonardo’s accompanying notes list the mathematical interrelations between the dimensions of the body: the height of the man is equal to the length of his outspread arms; the distance from the hairline to the chin is equal to one tenth of the man’s height, etc.

In the seventeenth century, German mathematician Johannes Kepler continued the conflation of geometry and divine creation: “Geometry existed before the creation. It is co-eternal with the mind of God… Geometry provided God with a model for the Creation.” British Romantic artist William Blake illustrated Kepler’s assertion in his 1794 image, Ancient of Days. Blake portrayed the creator deity holding a geometer’s compass–much like the divine figure in the Gothic manuscript. 

Modernism in Russia and Beyond

The connection between geometry and spiritual belief continued into the early twentieth century. In the years before the 1917 Russian Revolution, painter Kazimir Malevich realized that just as the Bolsheviks were dismantling social structures from the aristocracy to the Church, avant-garde artists should reconfigure the traditional views that shackled art to the past. Malevich was aware that some of the most important artworks in his country were religious icons: idealized depictions of holy figures like Jesus, Mary, and the saints. Historically, Russian icons were hung high up in the corners where walls met the ceiling, so that the sacred image could “watch over” the room.

Malevich jettisoned the convention of realist representation and replaced it with geometric abstraction. In the first exhibition of his radical new work, Malevich installed a painting of a deep black void in the traditional place of the “watching” icon. Malevich’s Black Square became one of the most controversial symbols of the Modern Age.

Malevich’s contemporary, Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, abandoned representation in favor of dynamic geometric abstractions. Kandinsky wrote about his new work and the theories that explained it in Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1912), a tiny but immensely influential analysis of how abstract color and form can be used to express the spiritual life of humanity. He asserted, “Color is a power which directly influences the soul… The deeper the blue becomes, the more strongly it calls man towards the infinite, awakening in him a desire for the pure and, finally, for the supernatural… The brighter it becomes, the more it loses its sound, until it turns into silent stillness and becomes white.” The innovative painter added, “The artist must train not only his eye but also his soul.”

It was a third Russian-born artist, Mark Rothko, who inspired Joan Kahn to create spiritually infused abstractions. Art had been an important part of Kahn’s childhood: Her grandfather was a professional portrait painter and her father often shared art exhibitions with his young daughter. Then, when she was in college at the University of Wisconsin, her Professor Victor Kord showed her Rothko’s transcendent Abstract Expressionist paintings. She was “blown away” by the canvasses composed of rectangles of color that shimmer in mysterious radiance. Rothko intended his works to be quietly meditative and to this end, his mature work was totally non-objective. He said, “Art to me is an anecdote of the spirit, and the only means of making concrete the purpose of its varied quickness and stillness.” Today, some of Rothko’s most impressive and inspirational paintings hang in the Rothko Chapel, a temple to Modern Art that attracts hundreds of meditators every week.

Like Rothko and Malevich before him, Joan Kahn uses simple geometric forms to create quiet, contemplative paintings that reach past the noisy distractions of daily experience and touch the quiet spaces of the soul. Her surfaces are precisely crafted: each painted edge is adamant and knife-sharp. Her use of color is astonishing. Translucent curtains of color hover beside bright, shiny passages and next to textured areas created by mixing sand with the paint. (Earlier artists from Picasso to Pollock also mixed sand into paint in order to build depth and variety.) Kahn’s ethereal color zones are juxtaposed with light-dark contrasts of curving grains found in woods such as mahogany and birch.

Kahn’s radiant and seductive Heart from 2010 contrasts thin veils of red, orange, and magenta, the warm translucent tones hovering over a birch background. Columns of color reach across painted bands, creating an orthogonal grid that recalls the compositional simplicity and subtlety of Piet Mondrian. Kahn was inspired to do Heart after she helped a close friend through a cardiovascular crisis. The artist suggests that the painted components can be read as veins and arteries But beyond the implied tie to the physical world, the interlacing lines of color suggest passion and intensity.

Kahn’s works are peaceful yet inspiring, serenely balanced without being symmetrical, brilliantly hued yet infinitely subtle. They evoke a rich heritage that draws on ideas and images from over two thousand years of history. The strength of Kahn’s works is that even viewers who know nothing of this history are nonetheless moved by the beauty and elegance of these spiritually resonant, geometrically-based compositions that pair finely painted surfaces with evocative wooden ones.

Betty Ann Brown, Pasadena, October 2014


Cohen, S. Marc, “Aristotle’s Metaphysics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). URL = <>.

Di Liscia, Daniel A., “Johannes Kepler”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). URL = <>.

Kandinsky, Wassily. Concerning the Spiritual in Art [1912], trans. M.T.H. Sadler. London: Constable & Co., 1914.

Rothko, Mark. <>

Zeyl, Donald, “Plato’s Timaeus”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). URL = <>.

NOTE: All art historical images cited are available in: Kleiner, Fred S.: Gardner’s Art through the Ages: A Concise History of Western Art, 3rd Edition. Boston: Cengage Learning, 2014.


Joan Kahn: Paintings to be Known by Peter Frank

To the contemporary American (and especially Californian) eye, Joan Kahn’s paintings appear to move the investigations and postulations of Minimal art into – that is, back into – the realm of painting. Since the initial iteration of Minimalism in the latter 1960s, after all, its amplifications and elaborations have extended well beyond sculpture, outward into installational and even performance formats and inward to painterly concerns. But, while Kahn could not have refined her practice as she has without the minimalist model, she could not thus have defined her practice in the first place without the model of an earlier tendency rooted in a geometric vocabulary.

Kahn’s painting should not be regarded as a reiteration of minimalism, but as a reconsideration of prewar constructivism. Certainly, many constructivists anticipated Kahn’s rigorous approach to form, and her debt to artists such as Mondrian and Malevich, Schwitters and Albers – as well as to postwar American inheritors such as Newman, Nevelson and Reinhardt – is quite apparent. What is at least as clear is the value Kahn places on the positing of similar and disparate forms, all within a refined formal language, in a dynamically asymmetric manner. The subtlety of Kahn’s style suggests a comprehension of Minimal art’s compositional neutrality; but certain crucial decisions keep her rooted in – indeed, dedicated to – the tradition of relational composition.

For example, Kahn’s decision to produce paintings based on intuitive rather than systematized (or minimized) palettes and compositional schemata steers her away from articulating the grid that underlies every painting. Rather than bring the visual pulse of the grid to the fore, Kahn employs it, as Mondrian did, as an armature on which to structure her relational, even eccentric, displays of verticals and horizontals. This in turn reveals Kahn’s emulation of modernist values we now associate in particular with 20th century architecture – not simply in the determination, even choreographing, of formal counterbalance, but in the use of texture in color (with the addition of varnishes, sand, pearl essence, dried pigment, and other unusual materials) and in the use of texture as color. This last gambit Kahn realizes by painting directly on un-gessoed panels of wood, panels stained or varnished in order to bring out rather than suppress the wood’s natural grain.

Kahn admits as readily to the influence of modernist architecture and design (citing as sources such luminaries as Le Corbusier, Rietveld, Wright, Schindler, Pei, Philip Johnson, and John Lautner) as to the influence of modernist painting. She also attributes her current direction (and indeed, most of her work) to the study of indigenous aesthetic sources, both the sources themselves and the modernist artists they impacted. For instance, Kahn cites not only Cézanne, Picasso, and Braque in her pantheon of forerunners, but African masks and body decoration, Islamic weaving and ceramics, Italian marble inlay, American quilting, and various forms of Native American artifacture as well.

While Kahn’s body of work in this decade may most resemble the neo-plastic painting of Mondrian, in fact her sensuous and contemplative approach to a rigid vertical-horizontal arrangement of linear forms hews closer to that of another influential figure, the mid-century southern California painter John McLaughlin. McLaughlin’s reductive sense of relational composition shared Mondrian’s quest for a spiritually driven disembodiment; but while the Dutch painter’s aesthetic was sourced in a quasi-religious drive to achieve a revelatory purity, McLaughlin sought simply to practice, to inhabit such a purity. Kahn’s practice, exploratory rather than prescriptive, hews closer to McLaughlin’s state of being rather than Mondrian’s state of becoming. Like McLaughlin’s, each of Kahn’s paintings is its own condition, its own philosophical micro-climate.

As with the work of McLaughlin and Mondrian both, the vertical-horizontal relationships in Kahn’s paintings are more significant than the “presence” of vertical or horizontal alone, or than the underlying grid. Again, Kahn does not give primacy to the grid, distancing her formally from Reinhardt, Newman, Agnes Martin, and other New York-based proto-Minimalists; however expansive or serene, her compositions rely on formal relations established on the picture plane, relations that engage visual components in a dynamic array. Still, it’s clear that, with her reductive formal language and her regard for the painting as an obdurate presence rather than (simply) a visual proposition or diagram, Kahn’s debt to Minimal art is not insignificant. In fact, she participated in what may have been Minimal art’s most contrary and yet most faithful offspring, Pattern Painting.

In the early 1980s Kahn, working in a painterly fashion she later abandoned, produced a body of work sourced Pattern and Decoration, a practice that had emerged in the United States a few years earlier in direct response both to minimalism and to feminism. Such Pattern Painting (to focus on the principle medium employed by artists in this vein) regarded the grid as an armature for more than austere re-inscription; on the grid the pattern painters, heeding the models of “folk” sources – particularly decorative and utilitarian art forms, most of whose practitioners were (presumed) women – constructed elaborate, even extravagant imagery, valorizing such heretofore undervalued phenomena as quilting, dress patterning, and hand-painted wallpaper. As mentioned, Kahn has cited marble inlay, tile decoration, quilts, and indigenous fabric design as influences; her attention was drawn to these “folk” sources in great part through the lessons of the Pattern and Decoration movement.

As a result, formal, coloristic, and even textural eccentricities play significant roles in Kahn’s painting. Her approach may be intuitive, but it is certainly not unguided or uninformed. Those eccentricities allow intimations – for all the physicality and emphatic planarity of Kahn’s painting method – of an illusory deep space. The use of added textures, of rhythmic elaborations, even of the grain of the wood, prompts us to view the interstitial rectangles between the bars of opaque pigment not simply as compositional gaps, but as spatial apertures – “windows,” if you will, onto an ambiguous, perhaps infinite space.

Indeed, the eccentricities Kahn engages allow us to regard the painting not simply as an object, but as a “natural” object, a thing fabricated – like its folk-art models – from materials related more or less directly to the natural environment. Of course, Kahn employs synthetic as well as natural substances, but the resulting physical presence of the work, seen and sensed, models an ecological balance in which a kind of material honesty prevails. In this, Kahn maintains the idealistic thrust of her sources, helping to posit a new ideal in the wake of the modernists’ spiritual ideals and the minimalists’ conceptual ideals: an ecological ideal, in which compositional and textural and coloristic harmonies intimate a natural harmony, one that scientists measure and artists feel; and a social ideal, in which the quotidian functioning of human life, in cities and in the country, strives against entropy and towards synergy.

This may seem like a lot to intimate from a series of paintings. But Joan Kahn is a self-professed neo-modernist, willing to manifest in her work a model for extra-artistic evolution. Dedicated not to progress per se, like the modernists, nor to a critique of progress, like post-modernists, neo-modernists like Kahn still see not only room, but possibility, for the improvement of the human condition, and regard their art as metaphorical models for this improvement. Kahn’s work is thus meant not just to be seen, but to be known – as it has been painted, intuitively but informedly.

Peter Frank, Los Angeles, February 2008

Peter Frank is Senior Curator at the Riverside Art Museum and art critic for Angeleno magazine and the L.A.Weekly.

Kaleidoscope by Max Presneill

Color systems in painting

In keeping with one of Raid Project’s curatorial approaches this exhibition is an attempt to allow similar works of art to find interrelationships between them that expand on a theme. Not as a justification of the curator’s concept but as an exploration of the divergencies. These artists share several points of reference- their love of color, a systematic approach and a refusal to allow the work to sink into a singular, logic bound definition of meaning.

These are references here to the modernist grid with all its ramifications, to the work of Stella, Halley and Mondrian and others, while still finding new avenues for the content to play itself against. Although this seeming drive to order is apparent it is balanced by the need to also relate to a more open-ended flux of potentialities. A touch of the Utopian and a healthy accommodation of pure visual pleasures is combined with a conceptual free-spirited playfulness, in the sense of play as an exploration of possibilities.

They have a taxonomical assembling of knowledge that engages the materials themselves while seeking a dichotomy-less relationship to content. A content which ferments an unpredetermined shifting of boundaries and new meanerings of thought. The implication here it is of the boundless extension of associational linkages within already formed sytems of logic

These works are beautiful, yes, but more importantly they attempt a perfection, with undisguised Hope, a truly Californian ideal (although they are not all CA natives), accepting both the historical limitations of the methodology and refuting these by way of an implanted Uncertainty Principle of understanding, hidden beneath the carefully wrought surfaces.

Max Presneill, Los Angeles 2002

For KALEIDOSCOPE Exhibition, “On Systems in My Paintings,” by Joan Kahn:

System (Random House College Dictionary, 1972):
Any formulated, regular, or special method or plan or procedure

When I start a painting I arrange the shapes (geometric stripes and rectangles) intuitively. Over time I have grown to know my own aesthetic and usually choose a minimal composition of several overlapping stripes and rectangles. The proportions of the shapes are also intuitive. Some years ago, when I started this series of works, I used mathematical relationships and geometric progressions (1:2:4:8:16:32 or 1:2:4:16:256 for examples) to dictate proportional choices, but found that my own intuition worked as well and better for decisions about proportion.
I do use preformulated systems for texture and color decisions. For example, I might decide that in a certain painting all horizontal stripes control textures of overlapping areas, or that all overlapping areas determine color equally. In all my compositions initial decisions about local color are based on how a color holds a space, or how a color makes an object push or pull. All my paintings are similar, but each painting has its own logic, and I create that logic system initially in designing the image small scale on the computer, and later when I paint, depending on my intentions for that painting.
It is significant that my intentions for each painting come from a subjective feeling for the image itself. This feeling comes out of disparate associations and references to landscape, architecture, the history of art, the history of humans, and concepts of beauty, horror, joy, tragedy, and humor.

Joan Kahn, Pasadena 2002

The Part to the Whole by Christopher Miles

At the end of the twentieth century, discussing contemporary art in relation to formalism is tricky business. Too often, formalism as a term has been used in an almost synonymous pairing with modernism, despite the fact that the former doesn’t necessarily imply the latter and the latter has only in certain instances involved the former. Nonetheless, in a cultural climate that has been described as “postmodern” with increasing frequency since the discourse surrounding postmodernity began to solidify in the 1960s, to link contemporary work with any term that might in turn be linked to modernism is to risk labeling the work as a throwback to a practice or aesthetic now outdated, passed by, or discredited.

I can recall more than a few art-school conversations with individuals staunchly offering unsolicited evidence as to how their ideas or practices were clearly postmodernist while pointing out how the ideas or practices of others were clearly modernist and thus behind the times and not worthy of attention. Accompanying this way of thinking and talking was a general aversion to using any aesthetic cues that might cause a viewer to associate the work with modernist precedents (particularly geometric abstraction, abstract expressionism, color field painting, post-painterly abstraction and any other variable subcategories that might fall into the broader category of mid-twentieth-century formalist art) unless such cues were served up with a smothering dose of irony.

There are many versions and manifestations of modernism. For the purposes of this essay, however, I would like to focus on modernism as manifested in the emphasis on an investigation of form initially fostered by critics like Roger Fry and Clive Bell in their writings about the Post-Impressionists. This emphasis later became, for a time, the closest thing we’ve ever had to a sort of monotheism of art theory in Clement Greenberg’s exaltations of nonobjectivity and the pursuit of purity in the abstract painting of the late 40s and 50s, a variation of which was championed in Michael Fried’s writings about abstract painting in the 60s. I focus on this notion of modernism because it seems to be that which sticks in the mind when modernism is mentioned relative to art, and because it burdened formalist art with the
heavy and conflicted role of trying to be simultaneously both the ultimate goal of art and the next new thing in art. It is also the kind of modernism which seems most commonly and conveniently referenced in discussions of postmodernism in art.

Postmodernism also has many definitions and manifestations, but I choose to think of postmodernism as an understanding that we presently live and operate in postmodernity—a climate or condition characterized by what Jean François Lyotard called, “incredulity towards meta-narratives,” or to paraphrase, by a reluctance to swallow sweeping, overarching arguments or explanations, which Lyotard also called “grand narratives.” In art, this condition has involved skepticism towards or reconsideration of a broad range of heretofore largely unquestioned narratives: the unitary and linear development of art history, the genius status of the author, the possibility of an ongoing radical avant-garde, and the primacy of formalism advocated by Greenberg. The positive aspects of postmodernity have included a reduction in the pressure on artists to pursue the “radically new” rather than the genuinely interesting; the beginnings of a more open, inclusive climate in the arts; and the possibility of a diverse range of investigations into medium, form, style, content, and opinion. The downside is that postmodernity, which to me makes sense as a condition, has been mistaken either as the next new style (which goes against the whole idea of doubting the possibility of any one dominant approach) or simply a backlash against modernism and thus a backlash against formalism.

In actuality, postmodernity allows for the investigation of any approach or multiple approaches to making art, and merely entails a doubt that any one approach can or should be regarded as dominant or legitimate above all others. Thus, while postmodernity would involve a reluctance to believe that, as Greenberg argued, an investigation of and emphasis on form is the highest pursuit in art, it certainly allows for the formalist endeavor as an option as valid as any other. It seems to me that this possibility—that while formalism no longer serves as the flagship of modernism, it can still be an interesting area of inquiry in a leveled postmodern artistic field—is something that has been recognized by artists faster than we writers and curators, who by nature are less in the business of envisioning as in the habit of seeing before believing. Thus, there has been what would seem an outbreak of work involving overtly formal concerns (often in conjunction with other concerns, as artists interested in form are not limited by pro-purity dogma from straying into other areas of investigation), though what would seem an outbreak is more realistically only formalism reclaiming a place in the expanded field of artistic practice.

The reinjection of formalist concerns in art—which is really more of a reinjection of interest in formalist concerns in the art market, exhibition circuit and published discourse, as plenty of artists have been making formally concerned work all along—has occurred simultaneously with emerging discourses about two “returns” in art: the return to an emphasis on beauty and the return to an emphasis on refined craft. These discourses have helped to reintroduce, among other categories of practice, formalism in a sort of backdoor manner. They allow us to talk about formalism in a limited way without ever having to dwell on a connection to modernism. The limitation that comes along with this dance of language, however, is that it tends to privilege particular types of formalist investigation over others which might be interesting, provocative and visually engaging but not necessarily focused on issues of beauty or technical refinement. It seems to me that we need to broaden this discussion. We need to say the “F” word, formalism, and we need to understand, value and question the development of formalism in connection to modernism while also allowing ourselves the freedom to consider them separately. We need to consider the possibility of a postmodern formalism—a formalism that can exist on its own terms, even question and stretch its own terms, that isn’t duty-bound to pursue purity or beauty, and that can connect with other concerns beyond the formal.

A Part to the Whole is an exhibition of works that I consider to involve formal concerns on an obvious level. I emphasize that this is an exhibition of works because I do not wish to pigeonhole the artists; rather, I want to focus on particular products and aspects of their creative activity. I also emphasize that the these works involve formal concerns, but are not strictly formal. Particularly, these are all works that were built, either physically or pictorially, out of parts. In many cases, the works are constructed according to a modular program or a grid, which has been identified as a hallmark of much modernist painting, sculpture and design. But I would argue that a grid or modular system is simply a way of organizing form, and so through the connection between formalism and modernism, there is a connection between these means of organization and modernism. I do not, however, regard these works as modernist or even late-modernist. On the contrary, I regard them as postmodernist in that they were made in a time when modernist rhetoric can not be relied upon to validate them, and they involve a consideration of form in combination with a scrutiny of a variety of other concerns, the mingling of which only a postmodern condition and approach can accommodate.

More than just bringing together works made of components, A Part to the Whole brings together works in which the status of parts as parts is not hidden, but made obvious, even emphasized, in the completion of the whole. Yet it is the completion of the whole, rather than individual relations between parts, that remains an apparent goal. In other words, in making selections for this exhibition, I wasn’t looking for work in which I saw fragmentation offered in the service of illustrating fragmentation, nor was I looking for the old idea of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. I was looking for work where the whole and the parts were truly as great as one another. This is a shared quality among the work in this exhibition, which initially occurred to some of the artists, who then, with Gordon Fuglie, the Director of the Laband Art Gallery, asked me to select the work for the exhibition and provide a context, which I hope this essay begins to offer. This exhibition is not intended as evidence of a movement, group or trend, but rather as an opportunity to examine how, in some of their works, six artists have negotiated a particular way of working.

I decided to avoid trying to present some sort of point-by-point comparison between the artists (sewing them up into a tidy package in which their works become conveniently indistinguishable in print though clearly and more interestingly distinguishable on the wall), as such an approach seemed both false and against the spirit of an exhibition which for me has become so much about understanding the integrity of parts within a whole. What follows are notes about a way or two of approaching works by each of the artists in this exhibition. Some of these approaches are geared more toward material, some toward composition, some toward representational issues. It should be emphasized that these are some approaches, or some ways which seemed appropriate to this show, but the works of each of these artists hold up under consideration in more ways and from more approaches than those introduced in this text.

steve degroodt

If there is any artist I have come across recently who deeply understands a particular quality of a part, it would be Steve DeGroodt, and that quality would be potential. In the creation of any whole, parts must be considered for inclusion, and those selected more often than not would be those perceived as having the most potential when combined with other equally promising parts to generate a desired whole. This approach may be quite appropriate for fixing a bicycle or building a house, but in the making of art, the idea of a successful whole need not necessarily be present at the beginning. For the artist, the potential of a part might only be seen relative to the part itself, or relative to other parts. I was already familiar with DeGroodt’s work, and thinking about it from the perspective of this exhibition allowed me to articulate an aspect of the work that I had only sensed previously. I had always been surprised by the finished pieces, or wholes, that DeGroodt was able to create from materials that seemed lacking of any potential. A cardboard box can be a found form. A scrap of fabric is seen as a color coating. Multiples of the most ordinary things combine to become pattern. What I have realized is that DeGroodt makes works, wholes, that are indeed as great as the sum of their parts because he is able to see in a part greatness that I couldn’t have seen in an afternoon of staring. DeGroodt is able, and just as importantly willing, to view parts for their potential in possible wholes rather than in specific wholes, and the results involve composite forms that are visually elegant and material combinations that are poetically eloquent.

joan kahn

In Joan Kahn’s paintings, with the exception of subtle variations in thickness and the selective mixing of sand into the paint, hard geometric compositions exist within layers of pigment on a single, uninterrupted plane. The parts or fragments in Kahn’s works are thus pictorial rather than physical, which makes sense, as a core area of exploration in her work is how a collection of visual parts forms a painting. Though functioning on one level as a purely flat, formal arrangement of interlocking, complex shapes composed of straight edges and right angles, Kahn’s works begin to appear as sets of relationships between overlapping, rectilinear parts. In fact, all of the shapes in her recent works could be interpreted as the product of rectangles of the same color overlapping to create new shapes, or rectangles of different colors overlapping and thus modifying the shapes of one another in a negotiation of positive and negative space. In addition to allowing Kahn to “build” a composition, this approach also begins to imply illusionistic depth. Thus her paintings might be viewed as falling between pure abstraction and illusionism, and it is in this between state that the relationship of parts and wholes becomes most interesting. Through the color, scale, proportion, arrangement and texture of these parts, the paintings invite viewers to make associations as to what type of space could be depicted—landscape, architecture, combinations of landscape and architecture, interior/exterior, etc. It is in ascertaining such a sense of space that the viewer then reaffirms the identification of the parts. Thus part and whole are consistently and increasingly comprehended in light of one another.

nancy monk

Nancy Monk’s small, delicate and intimate works, which are not painted photographs so much as they are mergings of paintings and photographs, are both highly formal and playful. Beginning with black and white photographs of a wide range of subjects, Monk paints on top of the images. She does not tone, highlight or touch up as one might generally think of painting on a photo, but rather uses the composition of the image as a starting point for developing an overlaying composition in opaque acrylic. In so doing, Monk obscures much of the original visual information while isolating discrete parts amongst the newly added components in the whole photo/painting image. The results are pieces in which the relationships between parts of the photo are reshuffled. The flow of information is also rerouted, and the viewer left to ponder two wholes: the image that existed in the photograph prior to the addition of the paint, where one is also tempted to mentally reconstruct the original photo (it seems hard for the viewer to believe that the remaining photographic fragments could once have been part of the same image), and the new whole, in which parts of the photograph that once might have been deemed incidental now appear essential, taking on important formal relationships with the painted-in parts. Monk’s work thus involves a sense of both reward and frustration. One enjoys the revision while missing the original. Realizing that the artist made decisions to replace obscured parts of the photo with new painted parts in an effort to generate a more interesting whole in the end, one gains an awareness of the difficulty of choosing between one part and another to create a new whole while working within the limits of an earlier whole that no longer exists.

laura parker

Laura Parker’s photographic works use ordered formal relationships between multiple images to explore photography’s capacity to pluck parts out of wholes and define them as new wholes in themselves. In any given photograph, what the viewer sees—what is framed by the photographer within the lens and might later be further cropped in the darkroom, let alone edited or manipulated—is a part of a broader whole from which it came, subsequently offered to the viewer at the exclusion of other parts of a scene that once surrounded it. The “slice of life” is exactly what the photograph becomes, a fragment of a larger picture both literally and metaphorically, and yet for the viewer, this fragment often becomes a new whole, or a the new “big picture” in itself, a seemingly closed, finite collection of visual information. In combining multiple images involving different subjects and variations in lighting, focus, circumstance and color, Parker reemphasizes the status of each as a fragment from a larger whole and also generates new wholes, quite literally new sums of parts for her viewers to add up for themselves. This addition can take place on a variety of levels, from the purely formal, in which even the most charged images can deny their loaded quality in favor of a supporting role in a larger composition, to the poetic and even the self-reflexive and critical. Parker’s works invite questioning, as they make explicit the severing of information that comes with the fragmentary while depending on such disconnection to create new connections in her pieced-together narratives. Curiously, by emphasizing the fragmentary nature of her image-parts, Parker allows them to function like representatives of unseen constituencies, encouraging the viewer to conjure the whole from which the parts came, thus allowing the new wholes she creates to invite a broad range of association.

carolie parker-lopez

Carolie Parker-Lopez makes visually clear that her works are made of parts. Images become like building blocks or basic units, sometimes laid out adjacent to one another on the same sheet, or placed individually on separate pieces of the roofing material on which she draws in pastel. These image-parts are consistently arranged in strict, ordered relationships along vertical and horizontal axes—left and right, top and bottom, stacked in a column, spread out in a row, or arranged in a grid or table. Parker-Lopez frequently uses images that suggest a reality mitigated and perhaps perverted by pop culture—fantastic topiary gardens, scenes outlined in what looks like pixie dust or lights from the Disneyland Electrical Parade, images reduced to caricatural or iconic abbreviations. In combining these images, and in repeating them in subtle variations to build toward wholes, the artist produces finished works that suggest a world in which understanding depends upon multiple impacts of images repeated and served in a variety of flavors, so to speak. The overt compartmentalization of imagery emphasizes the nature of the works as wholes made of individual parts, but it is the selection of specific parts, the relationships established between them, and the artist’s keen play with the idea of variations on a theme that leave the viewer with questions as to how whole ideas or messages are formed within culture. How does an image mean more when presented in two different colors, in positive and negative, reflected not once, but three times, or in combination with other images? How does a multiplicity of fragments offer a sense of wholeness? How might parts of fictions add up to a construction of a whole truth?

danny shain

If the dry, gritty, hard surfaces of Danny Shain’s paintings call to mind a road construction zone, then one is near the mark. In fact, the great variety of marks, patterns and scorings on street surfaces, be they deliberately designed stripes, functionally necessitated grooves or joints in the pavement, or serendipitous results of material spills, patches or wear and tear—all provide a formative influence on Shain’s work. While his more recent paintings and collages seem less specifically referential to road layers, they maintain a clear connection to the way surfaces come together in an urban environment. Sometimes spanning across the multiple panels that make up any one of Shain’s paintings, and in other instances stopping dead at the edges where the panels butt up to one another, the surfaces converge to echo the way stucco wall meets concrete driveway, asphalt street and parched earth; or the way in which multiple alterations to a road—with old lines and markings interrupted in some places where pavement has been cut out and filled in and new lines bridging over multiple patches—create dense geometric abstractions. The multiple panels, all encrusted with a mixture of acrylic paint and a concrete-like patching material called Fixall, provide a physical metaphor for the way the urban scape is fabricated and mutated around us, sometimes in a seemingly planned fashion, sometimes in awkward grafts and splices. Somewhere between abstractions and very pared-down representations, Shain’s paintings, quite literally constructed out of their varied parts, generate a wide range of relationships between parts from harmony to near noise, while offering amalgamated wholes with an equally wide range of resonance.

a closing comment

If we think of each of the artists in this exhibition as a part in a whole, then, as I have suggested for the works themselves, we might consider the whole not as being greater, but as being as great as the sum of the parts. If we are to think of the six offerings of work in this exhibition as six parts to a whole, then going by what I consider to be the greatness of that whole, I would have to measure the parts as great indeed. If I might, even if only in my own head, allow myself to ride for a bit on the coattails of their work, as the curator and essayist always does, I would like to count myself in the company of these artists by considering this text at least as a small seventh part.

Christopher Miles