DeWitt Cheng reviews Alex Kanevsky's exhibition "Unstable Equilibrium"

October 2015

by DeWitt Cheng

ALEX KANEVSKY: Unstable Equilibrium

Dolby Chadwick Gallery, San Francisco

 ‘Unstable equilibrium’ is an oxymoron, but one that neatly captures the synthesis of opposites that painting can embody. Artists and art theorists are fond of setting up stylistic dichotomies—drawing vs color, realism vs abstraction, intellectuality vs emotion, style vs content, aestheticism vs social engagement—and then arguing for the absolute rightness of one visual principle while condemning the other. William Blake, for example, a stylistic antiquarian who exalted “the hard & wiry line of Rectitude,” condemned Sir Joshua Reynolds and other stylish “Blotters & Smearers.” As eminent as Blake and Reynolds were, despite their aesthetic opposition, a lot of art then and now manages to occupy the middle ground between modes with no loss of individuality or quality. Alex Kanevsky, a virtuoso draftsman and ‘paint-slinger’ (to employ the slang of Abstract Expressionism), combines the rigor of realist depiction (which, in the form of Socialist Realism,  he learned in art school in Lithuania, then under Soviet  domination) with the free, intuitive paint application of AbEx, which he imbibed when he emigrated, naming Kline, Rothko, Diebenkorn (and the realist Lucian Freud) among his influences, according to the catalogue essay by art historian Peter Selz. Frances Malcolm, in another essay, characterizes the Kanevsky effect:

 “…an intoxicating roar of air rips through each work. Here, heady gusts loosen the brushwork and move the forms round, opening them up and allowing gestures, colors and shapes to pass through newly awakened fissures. As a result, these super-saturated compositions practically pulsate. Bodies multiply and appear and disappear; perspectives shift and rooms transform; water, sky and foliage and locked in perpetual motion; negative space becomes positive and positive, negative. It is in this wild alchemy of movement that Kanevsky’s paintings find their singular impact.

 Unstable Equilibrium comprises twenty-one oil paintings: eighteen on panel, one on canvas, one on linen, and one on mylar mounted to panel. Nudes are a favorite subject, with Kanevsky alternating single-figure studies (M.S.S, J.W.I. Twice, JWI in the Dark Studio, JWI in Her Room, Hollis, Embrace, Professor Charles Gallagher Vacationing in New England) with figure groupings that suggest nineteenth-century allegorical or romantic works (Fishing in America, Conversation, Beautiful Ladies Drinking Tea in a Landscape, Figure Searching in a Landscape, Lettuce and Fur, Monks at Sea), but, which, given their oblique, humorous titles, avoid the moralizing sentimentality of the Victorian era for a more contemporary skepticism; the narratives that the viewer inevitably read into them remain enigmatic and ambiguous—“absurd pseudo narratives” in the artist’s words; if the paintings look distressed with age at times, we read them as emotionally distanced as well. Rounding out the show are landscapes and interiors devoid of figures, but psychologically charged nonetheless (Burning of Leavers, Pink Room, Jumper, Waves, Rosy’s House, Rainy July, Night Two Days and Two Nights on the Farm). Kanevsky’s exquisite draftsmanship, painterly expressionism, and ambiguous  narratives make for dazzling, hypnotic paintings with uncertain or contradictory readings. In the portraits, the self is neither stable nor unitary, as in portrait tradition from the Renaissance through Eakins and Wyeth, but contingent and fugitive; Kanevsky’s sitters seem almost assaulted by the painterly energy surrounding them and sometimes invading their bodies. Frances Malcolm discerns in this surfeit of painterly energy “the multiplicity of the self and the capriciousness of personhood.” In the figure groups, the moral meaning that informed their prototypes has vanished, leaving the viewer to decide what the works mean. Consider the change in sensibility from Rembrandt to Goya and Manet and even Bacon, painters whom one glimpses in Kanevsky, and probably all influences. The unstable equilibrium is right in synch with the crises of the cultural moment. Peter Selz, who championed the ‘tragic humanism’ of existential artists like Bacon and Oliveira a half century ago, concludes his essay:

 In a period when cybernetic efforts, vacuous installation art, repetitive conceptual art, and inauthentic revisited modernist works are flooding international art fairs, painting—derived from the artist’s hand and eye—is to be cherished. … “Painting,” Kanevsky said, “is a conversation between the artist and his canvas (or board).” The viewer is certainly invited to participate in such a discourse, in which form and content are intertwined with emotion.

 Kanevsky, in an interview, declared his artistic independence: “I don’t feel strongly tied to either [realist or abstractionist] tradition and certainly do not feel myself to be part of any lineage. It is a rather confusing mix of influences that I have never tried to sort out.” And: “I don’t mind if these titles orthe implised stories mislead a viewer to some extent. To make a painting his or her own, a viewer will have to accept the ambiguity, confusion and search for clarity that were the conditions of its arrival.” Some artists are programmatic and theoretical; others refuse to foreclose their options. Kanevsky intertwines these sometimes antagonistic, sometimes complementary approaches to art and life, mixing past and present in his painterly dialogue with Rembrandt and others, yielding a terrible and terrific beauty.