Thursday, September 13, 2007

main street gallery is almost all right

An Amphora and A Fish
(detail), 2006, acrylic on canvas, 6'X18'

For the two years or so that I've been finding familiarity with Kumi Korf's art, I've felt mostly ambivalent about it. She has been best known recently for her prints. To be sure, these pieces are immaculately elegant and tasteful. But they've also struck me as too thin to command full attention, too decorous. So when I heard that she was showing paintings and drawings at Groton's Main Street Gallery, I was intrigued.

The work in her current solo show lives up to my expectations, displaying a more physically immediate quality. They show her to be a talented pure abstractionist (probably one of the best in the area). Paradoxically, much of it also betrays a profoundly narrative sensibility.

This dual quality is perhaps most striking in An Amphora and a Fish, one of two huge acrylic canvases that fill the gallery's large front space. (Unusually, these are presented unframed and unstretched, pinned directly to the wall.) Done in collaboration with her granddaughter Maïa Vidal, the piece is inspired by a fairy tale written by Korf herself. A maiden discovers an amphora (a kind of vase with two handles) while cleaning out a closet, but unfortunately she drops it and it ends up sinking into the ocean. There it is rescued from falling to the bottom by a "yellow fish with silver scales" which gives it a ride. Eventually, the amphora is magically transformed into a fish itself, an orange one. (You can read the full text in the gallery.)

You can make out a vase-like form near the middle of the painting and a fish (though miscolored blue and green) near the right edge. And an abundant turquoise alludes to the story's "blueness of the Mediterranean blue." But the narrative quality I mentioned isn't dependent on any relationship to an existing story (none of her work here is illustration). Rather, it has more to do with the piece's ability to evoke real-life places and events, which is an impressive feat using only traces of obvious representation. This quality is typical of Korf's best work here.

Amphora is six feet tall and 18 feet wide, large enough to engulf the viewer. Spots of raw off-white canvas peak out from splashes of thin, watercolor like washes of color—dull yellow, various greens, salmon pink, and the aforementioned turquoise—staining into the unprimed canvas. Other areas are thicker with pigment. The extensive use of feathery linework gives it the unlikely feel of a work on paper. Much of this is done in black charcoal and what looks like colored chalk. Some of these marks outline bulbous shapes while others suggest shading exercises or automatic drawing.

A Clear Day, the other large canvas (8x16 feet), is from the late 80s. The piece is similar in technique but rougher in style, less obviously pretty but with its own appeal. It betrays the fact that it was painted with a roller (as was Amphora, although much less obviously). The composition is emptier, with bars and blocks of sometimes heavily saturated color against the watery background. The paint drips down to the bottom but the other three edges are left uncoated, giving the piece an unfinished look. It recalls technically similar stained canvases by Helen Frankenthaler, as well as some of Mark Rothko's early abstractions.

The gallery's smaller back space is dedicated to two series of small drawings on paper. A set of 10 small, squarish pastels alternate between pieces with more or less definite landscape associations and those that are more abstract. My favorite from the former group is the aptly titled Fire Sky (D-71), in which an explosion of purple and orange streaks rises above a low horizon capping a body of water. The latter group can be split between striped compositions and those featuring more irregular patches of color.

Done on Japanese paper, the pieces in Korf's second series are taller (and therefore proportionally narrower), giving them the feel of elongated book pages. They are drawn (painted is perhaps more accurate) with pigment sticks, which gives them a thicker, greasier texture, something the artist exploits with rich layering. Earth tones and iridescent colors dominate. Like Amphora versus Day, these can come across - rather deceptively - as being more realized, more "artistic." They recall the textural and coloristic wallop of Bonnard and the off-kilter perspectives of Kandinsky's early landscapes as well as traditional Chinese and Japanese ink paintings.

While hardly weak, Window, Aquarium suffers from being too different from the other work in the show (the similarly colored, rectilinear Blue View (D-45) is an exception). Given its size and proportions (taller than it is wide), it suggests an actual window. Its colors are predominantly warm blues. The grid based abstraction is loosely reminiscent of Mondrian, as well as Richard Diebenkorn's somewhat looser Ocean Park paintings.

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