Robert Kuhn, a recluse whose art is anything but reserved

December 6, 2012

The art at Swann Street Gallery, a Dupont Circle apartment that doubles as an exhibition space, includes abstract paintings and representational sculptures as well as drawings, cartoons and collages, all in a variety of styles. But this isn’t a group show. Everything on display was made by a single artist, Robert E. Kuhn, who died in 2000 after spending almost half his life in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

Born in Michigan in 1917, Kuhn attended the Art Institute of Chicago and was later hired by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. He spent a few years in Mexico, where he learned to weld , before moving to Washington in the 1950s. Although he supported himself as an artist for years, he grew disillusioned with galleries. He relocated in 1966 to a deconsecrated church in Tanners Ridge, Va., where he became reclusive and largely stopped selling his work. (Some of his sculptures were made available through, of all things, the J. Peterman catalogue.)

Kuhn was an artist of his times, and some of his role models are evident. There’s some Klee in Kuhn’s patterned abstract pictures, echoes of Picasso in his sketches of nudes and a debt to Giacometti in his welded-steel sculpture of spindly figures on unicycles or stilts. But Kuhn was no mere disciple, and his restlessness kept him from emulating any artist for long. Once he’d achieved what he wanted, he moved on. In his final years, as his vision faded, he turned to collage.

Some of the pieces are autobiographical, such as a 3-D wooden wall piece that suggests the staircase to Kuhn’s 1930s Chicago garret. But the artist came to see abstract painting as his highest calling and — like many mid-20th-century American painters — took inspiration from jazz. That freedom and exuberance is evident in his canvases, which often hint at recognizable forms amid the splashy colors. Vibrant and robust, Kuhn’s work didn’t withdraw from the world when the artist did.

Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann

Although she’s something of a nature painter, Katherine Tzu-Lan Mann is not a realist. The work in her current Project 4 show, “Clove,” includes forms that suggest petals and vines, but also ribbons, braids and fabrics. The large piece hanging in the gallery’s window, “Palimpsest,” is on paper that’s been cut into lacy patterns, and painted — like all these pictures — with a mix of acrylic pigments and black sumi ink. Mann’s work shows the influence of traditional Chinese landscapes but is far from serene.

The selection includes works on canvas or mylar, but most are on paper, which is crucial to the D.C. artist’s technique. Mann begins her paintings by pouring ink and water onto paper and letting the fluids find their own way. After they dry, she builds intricate patterns around the initial stain. The elaborations can be purely abstract or include elements from nature or Chinese theatrical costumes. (There’s a hint of a dragon emblem behind the ropelike shapes of “Belly.”) Often, there’s an open area at the center of the painting — a clearing in the painted underbrush, or (as in “Cave”) the suggestion of a lake. Because Mann’s tangled paintings begin with liquid, it’s only proper that they offer the eye an escape route through pools of blue.

Clara Vannucci

In one of Clara Vannucci’s photos, an actor carries a cutout of himself as he heads backstage. It’s a nice found metaphor for “Crime & Redemption Theatre,” the Italian photographer’s show at Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery. There are multiple identities on display in these pictures, which document prisoner-actors at Florence’s Volterra Prison. Performing versions of “Pinocchio” and “Romeo and Juliet,” the performers wear thick white makeup and elaborate period costumes. Clearly, what they’re doing is a form of escape.

The prison theater program has practical goals, including teaching convicts how to read. But these large-format color images have a fanciful quality, evoking European aesthetic traditions that range from the romantic (grand opera) to the absurdist and existential (Artaud, Pirandello, Genet). Vannucci, who divides her time between New York and her native Florence, provides a strong sense of place; she frames the men in dark doorways and stone corridors, sometimes with elaborate Romanesque structures in the background. But the faces can be just as dramatic, whether painted as sad clowns or turned devilish with horns and red-tinted skin. Separating the actor from the role seems difficult, but then it often does.

Benjamin Bellas

Just inside the doorway at CulturalDC’s Flashpoint Gallery is a Navy peacoat stuffed with paper. It’s the closest thing to a human presence in Benjamin Bellas’s “Losing Something You Never Had,” an installation inspired by the death of Richard Hunt, the uncle whom the artist never knew. But of course it’s symbolic as well: The coat is stuffed with prints of newspaper articles about Hunt, a serviceman lost at sea in 1966 while serving in the Vietnam War.

The show consists of 13 untitled “non-memorials” and one “UNRESOLVED METAPHOR.” These range from actual artifacts — a photograph Hunt made, a wooden camel figure he bought — to a vast inkjet print of an empty South China Sea, courtesy of Google Maps. There’s nothing but blue in this image, part of what Bellas calls his “attempt to locate absence.” Hunt was missing from the life of the artist, who was born 10 years after his uncle’s death, and also — because of a clerical error — from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall. (His name was finally added in May.) If Bellas’s response to Hunt’s loss seems more bureaucratic than personal, that’s sort of appropriate.

Jenkins is a freelance writer.

Robert E. Kuhn

on view permanently at Swann Street Gallery, 1767 Swann St. NW; 202-316-5329; www.robertekuhnpainterandsculptor.com.

Katherine Tzu-lan Mann: Clove

on view through Dec. 15 at Project 4 Gallery, 1353 U St. NW, 3rd floor; 202-232-4340, www.project4gallery.com.

Crime & Redemption Theatre: Photographs by Clara Vannucci

on view through Dec. 20 at Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery, 1632 U St. NW; 202-483-8600; www.smithcenter.org/gallery.

Benjamin Bellas: Losing Something You Never Had

on view through Dec. 21 at CulturalDC’s Flashpoint Gallery, 916 G St. NW; 202-315-1305; www.culturaldc.org/visual-arts/
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