2011 Marty Kahnle: Blobs Rule At IronWorks Gallery

Words written about Martin:

Painter Martin Kahnle has worked on two major groups of paintings in his repertoire: his signature series of brightly colored landscapes and his “blob” pictures—the latter a sequence of works given over to ovoid circles on simple grounds that both beguile and bemuse the viewer, all the while maintaining a practice evident for its compositional originality and acute sense of color. In fact, Kahnle stands out a painter of genuine independence; he gives you the sense that he has taken on his subject matter with a seriousness born both of commitment and unusual technical skill. The landscapes, often painted a riot of hues, connect with the artist’s audience in semi-traditional ways; and the blob paintings, often simple, but never simplistic reductions of imagery to basic forms of abstraction, command our attention by their very straightforwardness—that is, their refusal to be anything but themselves. If one contrasts the two groups of art, it becomes clear that Kahnle is an artist intending to stretch his audience’s imagination, asking that his viewers meditate on works that don’t reinforce each other in an obvious way, even if they have been made by the same artist.

Working from a home studio, Kahnle seeks a particular relationship with nature; its myriad differences of form and color allow him the freedom he needs to paint. Certainly, painting the landscape is a traditional form of working, yet Kahnle shows us how he invests this legacy with a vision verifiably his own. Indeed, the genre he has chosen enables him to paint within a continuum of efforts that frame his own, so that he is working both within an established tradition and outside its parameters by creating an original style. Of particular inventiveness is the series of painting within which he embeds brand names; this practice may be interpreted in a number of ways, but it is especially a comment on the commercialization of the land itself—the American wilderness of rivers and mountains without end sadly becomes an advertisement for consumption. The situation is tragic, but it is in fact happening; we talk of “managing” forests as though they were simple commodities. As absurd as this may be, Kahnle connects a brand name to exquisite sections of foliage and natural forms, in a way that both underscores a nearly innocent vision of nature (one says “nearly” because the inclusion of trade names inevitably vies with the luminous beauty of Kahnle’s landscapes).

The clash between advertising media and the rugged beauty of mountains can be seen in the painting in which the words “Coca-Cola” are inserted into a landscape of exceptional attractiveness. The letters, mostly painted green, blend in with the overall composition, which consists of a rising hill that gives way to the sky and a curving, gray-blue stream in the foreground. The stones, hills, and vegetation are exquisitely rendered, so that Kahnle’s audience feels like the site is magical in its untouched beauty. Yet the inclusion of the trademark shows us that nature itself has become a backdrop, literally and as metaphor, for a product. In Kahnle’s painting, the work reads as a neutral environment, but we know that the increasing inclusion of commercial signs within the environment indicates the extent to which we now think of the world itself as a product. In the artist’s work, this becomes a critical recognition of a nature that has been excessively commodified.

Here the artist’s silence is eloquent beyond words; Coca-Cola has become part of our environmental fabric, its presence underlining the ubiquity of market promotion. But such imagery is only a part of Kahnle’s art. In Wetlands, for example, greenery prevails, albeit with the inclusion of several dead trees—markers perhaps of the increasing dangers of ecological destruction. A stream flows across the foreground; on either side of it, there is greenery that yields to taller vegetation. Kahnle’s forms are idiosyncratic, including geometrically shaped structures that somehow play out as organic imagery; their transformation is key to the strength of the picture. A light-gray sky tops the foliage and trees, lending a slight melancholy to the overall scheme of the painting. In many ways, Wetlands is both ecologically accurate and culturally buoyant, relying on traditional means to bring about a world of nature that is close to majestic in its color and intricate frame. It may be that Kahnle’s treatment of nature includes the recognition of its exploitation, as well as a more subtle vision of its traditional attractions. What would we do without nature, both in a practical sense and as a site for metaphor? Kahnle may likely be suggesting in Wetlands that art possesses the power to preserve those views of the world we keep in mind as something out of the ordinary, without which we lose its capacity to structure and support the imagination.

As for the blobs, they relate to children’s books with their flat colors and simple forms. Indeed, Suessed speaks of Dr. Seuss, the famous author of such beloved stories as The Cat in the Hat. In Suessed we have a striped, blob-shaped figure with two white spheres for eyes; it throws a dark-green shadow on a blue floor, separated from the green wall by a thin line of yellow paint. The effect of the painting is eccentric but compelling; it is a children’s image gone wild, both innocent and a bit menacing in its formlessness. Indeed, this series amounts to a retreat away from structure, with the simplest of shapes assuming their form against a notably flat plane. One hesitates to guess at the painting’s meaning, as it is so inexorably itself. But generally the imagery relates to childhood, including its bogeymen and moments of tenderness. Kahnle proves here and with the landscapes that painting is as much an act of the mind as it is a sensuous intuition—and this can be said because the artist drives his imagination into differing channels of expression. The landscapes and the blob paintings, so divergent in intent, show us that Kahnle is someone who thinks as well as paints, producing a memorable art that is not afraid of the vicissitudes—and the pleasures—that are so much a
part of the world.

Jonathan Goodman

Jonathan Goodman is an editor and writer based in New York. He writes for several publications, including Art in America, Art on Paper, Sculpture, and Art Asia Pacific.