Illuminating Per Kirkeby’s dark collections
By Mark Jenkins,
Danish artist Per Kirkeby trained as an arctic geologist, and much of the work in his current Phillips Collection retrospective is as dark and heavy as volcanic mud. Some of that exhibition’s motifs recur in Robert Brown Gallery’s show of Kirkeby’s prints and drawings (and a single painting). But the artist’s drypoints, etchings and aquatints have a lighter touch, even when they’re mostly black.
“Night Thoughts,” for example, is a dusky piece, but it is illuminated by flashes of white; the composition is punctuated by three enigmatic forms that float in auras where the black ink has been scraped off. “Dark Thoughts” is even blacker, but with lines that suggest mountain crests, rendered in green. The alpine contours are clearer in “Thoughts in the Sun,” an aquatint whose sanguine pink-and-peach palette is not echoed elsewhere in the show.
In addition to hints of peaks, palisades and cliff-side roads, Kirkeby’s mostly abstract pictures often include suggestions of trees and wood. One exquisite and untitled mixed-media drawing seems to depict leaves, a trunk and three logs atop what is clearly a milled board. That last image reappears in the only painting, also untitled, that features a wood-grained bar across the bottom. Other pieces, however, are as fiercely nonrepresentational as 1950s abstract expressionism.
Among the array’s highlights is “Inventory,” a portfolio of 18 black-and-white prints whose elegant use of line recalls classical Chinese ink paintings. Mountains can be glimpsed in some of these pieces, as well, yet the world they depict is entirely Kirkeby’s.
Also a complement to a larger exhibition, “On an Intimate Scale” at George Washington University displays three dozen smaller works by Jules Olitski, who is also the subject of a retrospective at the American University Art Museum. The selection dates from 1962 to 2007, the year of the Ukrainian-born American artist’s death. Both shows follow Olitski’s progression from color-field paintings that stressed shapes (mostly dots and ovals) and bright hues to a looser, more textural style.
In the 1960s, then-new acrylic paints were valued for their dilutability, which allowed artists to stain unprimed canvas with vivid colors that seeped entirely into the fabric. But acrylic is plastic, which means it can also be applied abundantly to create sculptural effects. In such works as 1991’s “The Sea,” Olitski preserved painterly gesture in 3-D form. In works that are less than two feet wide, the swoops seem almost as monumental as Roy Lichtenstein’s 30-foot-high sculptures of single brush strokes.
As Olitski pursued this technique, his palette became muted, with reds, pinks and purples nearly submerged in gray. He later synthesized the textures of his mid-career work with the circular forms and intense colors of his earlier style. The combination is effective, even in the smaller pictures of this show. But most of the striking works here are pure paint, clotted thickly in mid-swoop.
In most of moving-picture collagist Cliff Evans’s videos, the motion is steady and forward. Three of the four video loops in “Drones in the Garden,” the Brooklyn artist’s show at the Curator’s Office, take that path. “Dead Letter Postcard” and the title work flow though sylvan terrain that suggests 19th-century British landscape paintings; “Untitled (sketch for a monument to J.G. Ballard #3)” floats on a similar course through the flyovers of a multi-level Dallas highway, partially obscured by clouds. The forward momentum is eerily smooth and deliberate, in the manner of video games, and the mini-movies include high-tech military and outer-space gear, as if equipped for a battle that never begins.
Among the machinery are two varieties of unmanned aircraft, the missilelike ones that can carry explosives and the tiny surveillance quadcopters that resemble insects. The latter are the only elements in “Flag,” in which hovering red, white and blue drones assemble into a facsimile of the Stars and Stripes, buzzing in place for nearly five minutes before fluttering away. The imagery of this piece overlaps the others; there are robotic flying machines in “Drones in the Garden,” and U.S. flags in “Untitled.” But “Flag” is the most compelling of the four, and not just because its movements are more complex. Simply but eloquently, it contrasts American ideals — the Fourth Amendment’s injunction against unreasonable search and seizure, say — with the technocratic devices that can easily evade them.
and Magnolia Laurie
The Washington Color School goes to shop class in the minimal paintings of J.T. Kirkland, which are on display with Magnolia Laurie’s more turbulent ones at Heurich Gallery. A self-taught local painter and sculptor, Kirkland is showing four pieces from his “Subspace” series, all of which use red oak plywood. The artist cuts the boards into irregular octagons and paints each monochromatically. Solid color around the edges provides a frame for a central rectangle in which the same hue is applied lightly, seeping into the wood grain. The concept might be limited, but the natural patterns each painting reveals are dramatically different.
Laurie’s gray-heavy pictures are abstract, yet evocative of an eventful hurricane or tornado season. Sweeping forms suggest waves and winds, while smaller blocks, bars and daubs could be the scattered pieces of buildings and vehicles. Such titles as “Collecting a history and its debris” don’t tie the local artist’s paintings to particular events but clearly invoke chaos and loss. The largest of the oil-painted canvases, “Bermuda Blue . . . the function’s been altered and these choices seem odd now,” includes a large area of pencil scrawling atop the paint. It’s as if Laurie were making one last attempt to capture the bedlam that inspires her.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
on view through Dec. 15 at Robert Brown Gallery, 1662 33rd St. NW; 202-338-0353, www.robertbrowngallery.com.
on an Intimate Scale
on view through Dec. 14 at George Washington University Luther W. Brady Gallery, 805 21st St. NW, second floor; 202-994-1525; www.gwu.edu/~bradyart.
Drones in the Garden
on view through Dec. 20 at the Curator’s Office, 1515 14th St. NW; 202-387-1008; www.curatorsoffice.com.
J.T. Kirkland and Magnolia Laurie
on view through Dec. 12 at Heurich Gallery, 505 Ninth St. NW; 202-223-1626, www.