“The Fox and the Hedgehog,” is an allusion to the aphorism “the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,” commonly attributed to the Greek poet Archilochus. Though its precise meaning is largely disputed, this cryptic line gains traction in the context of Kanevsky’s art, which allows the viewer to see the world through the eyes of both the fox and the hedgehog. To the skittish fox, who knows many little things, each painting is a snapshot of a moment in time. In opposition to the fox’s linear way of knowing—where cognition unfolds chronologically as a series of single frames—it is also possible to absorb the contents of each painting in a more synchronic manner, like the hedgehog would.
From the perspective of the hedgehog, Kanevsky’s paintings collapse past, present, and future. We not only see a woman lounging on the floor through a pair of French doors in Interior (Exterior), we see her readjusting her dress as she combs her fingers through splayed hair, we see the doors swinging in the wind, the cool air circulating, and the low sun creeping across flesh and floorboards. The collapse of space is also achieved through perspective and allusion. Featuring a woman clad in a kimono-esque robe sitting atop a dramatically tilted table, JFH with painting assumes many of the characteristics of Japanese ukiyo-e—a style known for its multiple competing perspectives. The shallow space of JFH with painting is furthermore abutted by a flat, boldly-patterned background (ostensibly the painting in the title) reminiscent of abstract Japanese cherry blossoms.
Paintings like these successfully capture “that one big thing” that transcends the limitations of linearity. That one big thing can also be interpreted more literally. Many of the works in this exhibition, especially a collection of 18- by 18-inch works on board, feature a single subject. Such a narrow focus allows Kanevsky to study a given subject deeply and exhaustively, with the result that the viewer comes away feeling as if she’s glimpsed something so full that it necessarily exceeds the sum of its parts.
Despite the paintings’ conceptual sympathies with early schools of modernism that used multiple, often fragmenting perspectives to reveal different truths about a subject, Kanevsky’s loose brushstrokes and use of color are more closely aligned with those painters who reacted against the traditional rules of the 19th century French academy. Though Monet in his Garden serves as an affirmation of this affinity, the painting is more an exploration of reality—or lack thereof—than an homage to the great French painter. Another one of Kanevsky’s small, square works, this painting is inspired by little-known footage from 1915 showing Claude Monet in his garden at Giverny. Kanevsky explains how he was struck by the film’s light— which is eerily similar to the light in many of Monet’s paintings—its grainy black and white quality, and they way Monet’s shadowed face and bright white coat mimic a photographic negative. So moved by the footage, Kanevsky set out to re-imagine its reality by mapping colors across its basic coordinates.
The footage also presents a rare glimpse of a man at work in his private space. As our personal environments exert significant impacts on our individual realities, the spaces we occupy are particularly important to Kanevsky:
My models’ life experiences are shaped by their environments and they, of course, in turn shape their environments. Questions of private and public space come up. Your bedroom is your private space. The painting you are in is a public space. What is it when your bedroom is in a painting? Placing a person in their environment on a painting elicits the question of including or excluding the viewer in that environment. That ultimately shapes your experience with the painting, as a viewer.
-- Alex Kanevsky
What then does it mean for us to be privy to Monet’s garden? How is the garden an extension of both the subject and the viewer? How can we think about the private spaces depicted in Red Apartment and the eerily empty Four Doors? How do these concerns reflect the enigmatic fragment about the fox and the hedgehog, if at all? The beauty of such questions lies in their resistance to resolution. Kanevsky explains: “All of these paintings are sort of representational Rorschach blots. It is not what object is in the picture that matters, but what emotional response the painting triggers. So if I have any reality in these paintings, it is only for that reason.”
Alex Kanevsky was born in 1963 in Rostov-na-Donu, Russia and studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He has been the recipient of numerous fellowships and awards, including the Pew Fellowship for painting in 1997 and, most recently, a residency at the Lux Art Institute in San Diego. In addition to exhibiting across North America and Europe, his art can be found in the permanent collection of the Achenbach Collection, San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts. He has been reviewed in Art in America, the San Francisco Chronicle, the LA Times, The New York Observer, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. In 2011, his painting “Big Head” was included in the Dolby Chadwick exhibition HEADS, curated by Peter Selz.