Kenneth Baker reviews Alex Kanevsky’s exhibition "Heroes and Animals" San Francisco Chronicle

Kanevsky at Dolby

October 2010

by Kenneth Baker

In Christopher Brown's "A Gardner's Notebook" at Berggruen and Alex Kanevskys "Heroes and Animals" at Dolby Chadwick we see two painters seeking resistance within their art form.

Brown's work has long celebrated painting's capacity to incorporate images from diverse sources and retune their degrees of definition. But this very freedom and his own technical facility often present him with more options on the levels of form and content than he can manage. So he has tried to draw strength, with occasional success, from the awkwardness or impasse that results.

"A Short Story" (2010) might have originated in memories of the painter's childhood. It describes a snowy landscape dotted with figures, snowsuited schoolboys scattered around a bus. An insert at the top reads almost as a blown-up snapshot, another winter scene, tacked onto the painting. So does a small portrait literally hinged to the main canvas at its lower right corner.

"A Short Story" might have gone anemic with sentimentality, but Brown steered it into Raymond Carver or Joyce Carol Oates territory by having a boy at the lower right swan dive from a very uncertain height off what looks like a diving board, or perhaps a roof ledge.

That detail - a suicide attempt? mere boyish recklessness? - takes over the painting, referring us to all the ambiguities Brown has left or installed in it, and to the quality of space and the comportment of the onlookers below. By leaving us unsure whether the other figures present are onlookers, Brown annexed an allusion to a theme in Western painting very distant from the American Scene aesthetic: the fall of Icarus, an allegory of guileless arrogance that resonates with current American affairs than Brown could have contrived consciously.

In other works, such as "See What I'm Saying?" (2010), Brown has unusually emphasized the abstract understructure of his painting, in this case an angled grid. The picture derives from a television image of marchers in the Rose Parade but it also wears an outrigger small canvas at its edge: a relaxedly painted picture of - I think - an antique telephone. That reading recasts the work as a whole as a reflection on rituals like parades that are efforts to keep in touch with an idea of America's past.

The two pictures exemplify Brown's success - as not everything on view does - in dovetailing alterations to his work with heightening and relaxation of self-consciousness. That coordination, which lies beyond a painter's control, brings us as close as spectators can get to the heart of art practice.

The Lithuanian-born Kanevsky cannot readily draw upon the American Scene background, and common ground with his viewers, available to Brown. Kanevsky's titles, with the exception of "New Hampshire Bather" (2010), reflect a European orientation. Imagery appears to flow from Kanevsky's hand with such ease that we never suspect him of using the camera, although perhaps he does.

He faces the unusual problem of making his work look contemporary, or at least modern; that is, troubled by the pretenses to truth that its gifted realism generates with seeming effortlessness. Kanevsky's interventions in his work's illusionary transparency consist of subtracting detail, or of flooding passages with brushwork and color that refuse to read figuratively.

This habit of slackening the grip of imagery on imagination so pervades his work that we quickly begin to see it as a device. Only occasionally, as in the masterly "Irish Cow" (2010), does Kanevsky keep marks perfectly poised on the cusp of description and abstraction. This painting recalls a couple of extraordinary early pictures by Francis Bacon (1909-1992), which makes me wonder whether Kanevsky also had the Dublin native in mind when he titled it.