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On the eve of his show’s opening at McLean Project for the Arts, painter Kurt Godwin is laughing nervously in the pitch-black gallery. A thunderstorm has knocked out the lights three times already, and the Alexandria artist is taking it personally. “I’ll do better next time!” he swears at the ceiling—perhaps addressing Basil Valentine, the 14th-century monk whose work has long preoccupied him.
The Twelve Keys of Basil Valentine, a medieval primer on the science of alchemy, is the basis of Godwin’s Twelve Keys series; “Twelve Keys and the Glass House,” on view at the MPA’s Emerson and Atrium Galleries to July 20, explores the alchemical symbols that have become Godwin’s visual vocabulary. The show presents the full series for the first time, accompanied by two smaller series paintings.
Godwin—who teaches painting and drawing at the Corcoran College of Art and Design and for a Northern Virginia-based graduate program at Virginia Commonwealth University—had for some time been intrigued by alchemical references in the work of modernists such as Ernst and Duchamp, and he had even paged through some of the major texts, including Valentine’s, but the mythology made him nervous. “I didn’t know what I’d be getting into,” he says, “and this stuff is nothing you want to mess up.” A little more than five years ago, he tentatively began projecting Valentine’s engravings onto canvases, painting the keys—which refer to the alchemical steps of transformation—and then overlaying them with images of Ferris wheels and carousels, the carnival rides serving as stages for the alchemical allegories.
In anatomizing the 12 keys, Godwin made a surprising discovery. “Alchemists communicated through these engravings, so the objects within them are placed in prescribed locations,” he explains, pointing out a line between a lion’s tongue and a billowing furnace in Twelfth Key. Godwin soon found star-shaped patterns within all of the keys, some of which he has painted into his works. “The shape reminded me of…the tree of life,” he says. “They say these key points are the geometry of all creation.”
In the Twelve Keys series, Godwin used color combinations and metallic pigments referenced in alchemical texts. The multiple layers and fractured viewpoints of the 46-by-54-inch paintings create a hypnotic, kaleidoscopic effect, something the artist felt while creating the pieces. “Sometimes I almost get into a trance state, and I make these squiggly marks,” he says. “I feel like I’m writing something, but I don’t know what.”
The Glass House series centers around a simple line-drawn house, a representation of the crucible used in alchemical transformation and of the alchemist himself. And alchemically tinged symbolism continues through Kaddish for Lori, a group of 10 stark, comic-book-inspired paintings Godwin made following the sudden death of his wife in March—paintings he had not planned on including in the show but incorporated at the last minute. Doing so helped him make some sense of the loss, he says: “Death is kind of the ultimate transformation, I guess.”
For all alchemy’s mysticism, Godwin prefers to focus on the transformative relationship between artist and viewer. “The idea of turning a blank canvas into a completed thing, that to me is alchemical,” he says. “And that is accessible even to a layman.” —Shauna Miller