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“Steven Cushner: Three Paintings & Eleven Works on Paper”
“Walter Kravitz: Heave(n)”
A faith in “process” sustains many contemporary artists through periods of critical isolation and economic hard times. It even stands in as a subject for those who are unwilling to lay claim to more conventional subject matter. In the hands of thoughtful and disciplined artists, this emphasis on the rituals of making can produce both formal and emotional eloquence, as is demonstrated by Steven Cushner’s recent work at George Hemphill’s new Georgetown gallery. Visual chronicles of their own creation, the paintings and drawings also provide an insight into the dialogue an artist maintains between the evolving work of art and the world at large.
The world at large used to be called “nature” by artists in the pre-modern era, and it is the term Cushner himself employs. It stands for the perceptions and experiences occurring in the daily reality outside the pictorial arena. For the painter, the pictorial arena possesses a profoundly compelling reality. Oscillating between these two locations with the evolving work of art as a pivot, the artist discovers or reveals his important truths. Cushner’s new works, with their evocative linear motifs, certainly function that way, mirroring the process of their creation and reflecting, often indirectly, aspects of the artist’s understanding of life beyond the picture’s edge.
Each of the new paintings and drawings contains a shape created by a system of repeated parallel dark blue or black lines surrounded by bluish, reddish, orange, or yellow marks. There’s a terrific tension in these works; formally in the way the shapes relate to their edges (the paintings are unframed, irregular ovals), and iconographically in the restraint with which they invoke the natural world. The painting Niagara can be read as a simple diagram of falling water, but the pictorial drama results from the elaboration of the parallel lines that create the motif and from the symphony of drips falling from them, played against a shifting and indeterminate ground. This “ground” is in fact not a ground at all, but a sequence of spaces filled with variously directed brushstrokes and color patterns. Some echo the silhouette of the centered form, others are placed horizontally within it. The linear motif organizes and dominates the canvas field, yet the field is so inconsistent that it disappears as a foil for the shape. Pictorially, it’s quite a satisfactory solution, but one that is both disturbing and fascinating, constantly posing the question of where these images occur.
This imprecise yet emphatically rendered space is no longer a place within which the images appear. Constructed of layers of acrylic so thin as to seem in some areas mere washes or glazes, all three of the paintings manage to be both on a surface and within some system of organized illusions, although the terms of this system remain obscure. Visually, the ambiguity seems to derive from the logic of the central motif, but metaphysically, it has at least as much to do with the exploratory dialogue between art and reality that is part of the creative process.
The works’ central motifs are derived from the artist’s desire to discover a form that will exist simultaneously in the realm of the abstract and the realm of the representational without ever firmly committing itself to either. The old dialogue between nature and art struggled toward a synthesis of the two, but in Cushner’s works there is suspended antithesis, an unwillingness to settle for a comfortable pictorial resolution; thus, the lines that make up the motifs remain lines at the same time that they diagram some object that is almost but not quite recognizable. The titles—Mascot, Paddlewheel, Buoy, Cuckoo Fountain, Flip Flop—also seem designed as much to divert the understanding as to illuminate it, placing a humorous filter over the images to diffuse their dark aggressive power.
However much Cushner’s work may seem at first glance to be an exploration of dualisms, none of these paintings or drawings exploit the simple melodrama of contrasting polarities. This is an admirable transformation for an artist whose works in the late ’80s—large collages of gaudily colored strips of canvas looped and glued into bold but abstract configurations—had an almost alarming tangibility. In the intervening years, Cushner flattened his surfaces and reduced his palette as he worked through a sequence of formal problems derived from the circle and the spiral. These 1993 works, with their combination of material transparency and psychological and formal monumentality, are consequently both a summation and a new beginning. In the last year or so, he has emerged as a painter of important paintings, an accomplishment recognized by his receipt of one of only three NEA grants awarded to Washington artists. But for an artist like Cushner who is so firmly anchored in the process and discipline of artmaking, the current works are less likely to be turning points than points on a continuum that will lead to increasingly profound and confident art.
The intelligence and humor that enliven Cushner’s paintings are also at work in Walter Kravitz’s installation Heave(n) at the Corcoran’s Hemicycle Gallery. Taking on the challenge of the gallery’s 13-foot curving wall and the half-cylinder of space it creates, Kravitz has produced a late-20th-century response to the bravura pictorial illusions of baroque and rococo ceiling painting, an ambition evident even in the work’s title. By using the curving wall instead of the ceiling, he manages to put the viewer into the illusionist space, there to be confronted by complicated intellectual and perceptual games of hide and seek.
The scale of the installation makes it impossible to see as a whole. Both ends of the long, curved wall are anchored by large, lyrically curving abstract shapes that become gradually smaller and more widely spaced as they approach the center of the curve. About halfway along each arc, the forms begin to lift from the wall until, in the center, some are actually suspended in front of it on a grid of monofilament line. This combination of actuality and illusionism on the curving wall spins the spectator rather violently toward a vortex of form, space, and color at the curve’s center, then back out through the more open area. In such a monumental interior, the effect is literally overwhelming. This may be, in fact, the space that Kravitz’s work has always been waiting for.
Those familiar with the artist’s work will recognize the twisted and twisting transparent plastic shapes that hang in the center of the curve. The long curvilinear ribbon shapes at the ends are new, however. Painted bright primary and secondary colors on sheets of polycarbonate, they have been cut into strips and then further trimmed into planar biomorphic forms which manage to resemble both baroque drapery and cane candy. The central free-hanging shapes are the distinctive, nonreferential ones for which the artist is known—shapes that always seem to be on the verge of becoming something identifiable. Kravitz speaks of wanting to reproduce the “dimestore richness of cheap things” and childhood’s excitement at the world’s abundance. Certainly, the bright colors and whimsical shapes present a visual universe of relevant lightheartedness.
This charm is not the primary goal of Kravitz’s installation, though it does create one large level of meaning within the work. But beyond delight in material experience, Kravitz explores philosophical and psychospiritual ideas using visual charm to avoid becoming embedded in the literalness of any specific narrative. It is a task baroque and rococo decorators were unable to accomplish completely because of their obligation to work with the symbolic and allegorical narratives of classical mythology and Christian history. Although their skill at representational illusionism opened walls and, particularly, ceilings to wonder, the limitations of their allegories and visions inevitably constrained the intellectual, if not the visual, capacity for admiration. Thanks to abstraction, in Heave(n) and in many of his earlier works on a less magnificent scale, Kravitz is able to diagram, without descriptive handicaps, both a physical and intellectual process of becoming. Thus, the charm of the work seduces the viewer into a deeper contemplation of the nature of being—of what today we might choose to describe in terms of subatomic particle physics, but in the 17th and l8th century was still, albeit precariously, the realm of the divine.
The biomorphic and curvilinear shapes Kravitz has created contribute significantly to the effect of organic dynamism in Heave(n), but so do the bright transparency of the materials and the interplay of form and shadow along and before the wall. The themes of movement, time, space, and matter are physically as well as conceptually present. And although they are invoked with enormous visual energy, that energy is precisely balanced by the delicacy of form and thought it assumes. Best of all, Heave(n) demonstrates that images of the most profound and metaphysical insight need not be inaccessibly analytical or humorlessly austere. On the contrary, the installation is a manifestation of wonder and delight in which wisdom and pleasure are united through art.