New York

Ken Kiff

Edward Thorp Gallery

The bulk-oriented art diet that we have lately grown reaccustomed to makes Ken Kiff’s pictures—physically small, pictorially private—practically indigestible. Not that they are unappealing, once noticed, but rather they seem almost invisible to current tastes. Kiff does wonders with acrylic paints on paper, conjuring up a metaphysical universe as copiously endowed with color as it is with evocative personae. The interrelatedness of the paintings—each is a kind of visionary landscape populated variously with anthropomorphic grotesques and architectural/natural landmarks—is both obvious and deliberate; since the early ’70s Kiff has numbered his works, reinforcing his assertion of them as a single, aggregate sequence. This show skipped around, including work of the past few years, but certain tonal combinations and visages appeared throughout. There was a consistency; if the melodies varied, as they did from one scene to the next, the key remained the same.

Their titles alone convey some of the sense of Kiff’s paintings: The Puppet (Karagiosi—the Greek Puppet Hero) and the Giant, Anxiety, The Poet Vladimir Mayakovsky Invites the Sun to Tea. As with most of the other work in the show, radically different-scaled components are juxtaposed in all three of these paintings to create a chromo-psychological space rather than a Euclidean one. In Anxiety a centrally placed, seated human figure coexists with a proportionately sized monkeylike creature to the right (which spells out the title word into its ear); a small, crying infant to the lower left; and a four-armed monkey floating at the top of the composition. In Kiff’s gently demonic universe visual allegories establish time and space, such as they are, in preference to rendering observable detail or recreating the known or remembered.

It may be as much this dependence on the symbolic, not to say the overtly surrealistic, that marks Kiff’s art as so resolutely anomalous amidst the pseudo-and para-heroics of many of today’s more touted picture-makers. More his imagery than his scale, that is. His version of representationalism flies in the face of Modernist interdictions against symbolism and/or surrealism. His intimate and revealing paintings are devoid of the infantile psycho-babble that, along with frenzied brushing, forms a common thread through the expressionist stampede now underway. Kiff holds out against prevailing standardizations of the subconscious—there are no dogs, no looming hands, no proscenium voids, no appeals to pornography in this work. What it does offer is a thoughtful, self-aware, legible record of the mind as expressed through the senses.

Richard Armstrong