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.