Abstract Critical

Wyatt Kahn at the Hannah Barry Gallery

Written by Sam Cornish

Late Nite, 2012, 84 x 83.5 inches, image courtesy of HBG

Somewhere near the centre of Wyatt Kahn’s paintings is a contradiction, or an ambiguity. On the one hand in their large-scale, abstraction and formal invention they relate to earlier periods of modernism, perhaps specifically to the shaped canvases of Frank Stella. On the other they counter this language with a faint tinge of absurdity, with suggestions of failure or the slightly careworn; at times their ostensible abstraction is combined with a sort of crude figuration, with a bulging line suggesting something animate or a line sticking out like an attenuated limb.

Sideways, 79.5 x 62 inches, image courtesy of HBG

Stated like that Kahn’s work fits with the work of quite a few artists currently returning to earlier modes of modernist abstraction. An artist such as Sara Barker uses the spatial abstraction of the sixties. Her sculptures are often upright and undeniably if vaguely figurative, and appear slightly melancholic, like fragile, mournful and slightly lost wraiths. The problem it seems to me is that the equation underpinning Barker’s work is too quickly verbalised. Reference to modernist sculpture + easily digestible intimations of loss, fragility + vague but undeniable sense of personhood  = commentary on the failure or the past-ness of modernism, a throwing off of the rhetoric of modernist progress or heroism, a return to it of doubt or the feelings and contingencies of everyday life…

The strength of Kahn’s work is that it resists such an easy commentary. The language of modernism is not simply undercut or disrupted by things that are referenced as standing in opposition to it. A large part of their success is the way they deal with illusion, specifically the fact that they treat illusion as a problem. Indeed it is perhaps because they treat illusion as a problem that they directly approach modernism, as it was the problem of illusion that drove much modernist formal invention: how to assert flatness and depth; how to be both real and illusionistic.

Laine, 66 x 75 inches, image courtesy of HBG

Broadly the type of illusion Kahn employs is one that comes after the reduction of minimalist painting. The flat, object quality of each part is in one sense simply accepted. There is no hint of the surface being broken, of a window open to an atmospheric or light filled space beyond (however shallow). Instead illusion appears as a distortion of the parts of which the paintings are comprised; it creates different types of stress, tension or emphasis, and can suggest a sort of three-dimensionality, by prising or warping a flat plane so it no longer appears parallel with the wall. This distortion is one which is constantly checked or denied, but Kahn releases enough of it to allow his structures to be more than just arrangements of flat planes, or linear compositions. It means his parts can exist in dynamic relation to each other: rather than one piece simply being next to another, distortion breaks or re-draws their boundaries, so they can be spliced together to form ambiguous wholes.

Fat, 2012, 71 x 76 inches, image courtesy of HBG

Perhaps the most successful of the pieces in the exhibition is Fat. Its forms are weird and suggestive enough to avoid the attractive, but ultimately overly conventional arrangement of Laine, as well as being remote from Stella’s tough  physicality. But at the same time it has little of casualness of some of the smaller works, which at times seem too obviously designed to provoke an emotive, almost anthropomorphizing response. Similarly its compactness avoids the problems of the spindly lines of Late Nite or Sideways, which, whilst perhaps commendably risky, are either formally unconvincing or too easily read as an outstretched arm or leg.  Instead Fat confidently melds two different systems together, one impersonal, abstract, the other organic, absurd, but does this in a way that means it is hard to fully work out where one ends and the other begins. Semi-faux perspectival lines, that at times suggest ribs, fan variously across the piece, half suggesting depth or lines of force; lassoing or ghosting across these is an bulging shape. Where the work in general seems to pull to (our) right the bulge pulls to the left, oddly enlivening the central frame, and holding attention without offering an obvious resolution. Where many artists use doubt to undercut their work’s formal structure (or to excuse its absence), Kahn is able to jam doubt into the structure of Fat. 

Wyatt Kahn: Painting is on at the Hannah Barry Gallery, Peckham until the 11th of November. The gallery website is here. Image credit for the installation shot is Damian Griffiths.