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

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