Ken Kiff

Nicola Jacobs

Walking into a room of Ken Kiff paintings is like finding a grown man in tears at a bus stop. Distaste is followed by an excess of fellow feeling, well meant but sentimental, compensation for an initial coldness. Such beginnings make it doubly hard to sympathize with the stranger or to truly understand his problems. Spectators like being permitted to condescend to artists, and Kiff, like the man at the bus stop, gives them every opportunity. They leave in a spirit of emotional largesse, confident that they have discovered a new Chagall or an L.S. Lowry. Reviewers concede that Kiff is no naïf. Yet admitting that his preoccupations are those of any other advanced abstractionist seems to deny the power of his imagery. Digging for buried narrative is futile; the rightness of one of these works resembles that of a nursery rhyme.

In Floating House a jolly sunscratches its head as it watches a house hovering in mid-air, while a frightened man nears the top of a ladder only to find a disembodied foot planted at the summit of a mountain. House and Giraffe shows the inhabitant of a ruined house looking incredulous as a naked figure flies away on an airborne giraffe. Laws of cause and effect are suspended; these are states of affairs unified by a sense of wonder. Sight is paramount to Kiff, who aims both to present and examine visual ravishment. Within the works horror or delight prevails. Looking in from outside adds another dimension.

Drawing Back a Curtain “contains” an invisible male viewer who pulls a purple drape to reveal an erupting volcano, the sun reprimanded by a passing cloud, a fish talking things over with a giraffe and a hill striding up to take a look. We see as he sees. Elsewhere punishment awaits the viewer. A vase of anemones have, in Eliot s words, “the look of flowers that are looked at”; a face like a death mask peers back from among the blooms. But there is a danger in the rapt narcissjstic way a dawn landscape contemplates its own creatures or even the way, in Man and Fish, a human being contemplates an animal. Often visual perception fares badly in a “public” world. Not content to stand and stare, we deny the dominion of sight by doing too many other things at the sametime. Literal fragmentation takes place in one painting in which a man splits into three. When other people enter, wholeness of self, represented by the power of total visual possession, is threatened. In Talking to a Psychiatrist an ominous crack appears in the paintwork as a nervous patient jabbers to a well-dressed ogre on the other side of the room. Two Faces captures a moment when a couple realize that each is alien to the other. Finally, in a sequence of works called The Street, the eye is taken for a walk in the “real” world, represented as a glorious medieval Hell, where greedy monsters cannot see enough and devour each other by looking. Eyes sprout on the sides of their faces; bodies become bulbous and extend dangerously toward their neighbors. Kiff might well cry at a bus stop, but might also dance for joy. His Romantic theme is single and obsessive: how perception defines the individual, allowing him to transcend physical limits, at the same time locking him tightly into place. Forget the painterly dexterity and the art history; Kiff has made a private argument for the continuance of painting. For him it has everything to do with the survival of Ken Kiff as a person.

Stuart Morgan