San Francisco

Pat Klein, “Natural Disasters”

Stephen Wirtz Gallery

Pat Klein is among the strongest of the many local artists in their 30s producing painterly figurative abstractions. The collective title for her recent paintings on canvas and on paper, “Natural Disasters,” refers not only literally to the turbulent land- and seascapes these works depict but metaphorically to the emotional traumas that appear to have inspired them. Suggestive individual titles such as Illusions of an Aging Child, 1983, Falling from Grace, 1984, and Lover’s Leaves, 1983, extend the autobiographical allusions of these freeze-frames from dramatic narratives.

In the past, Klein’s most compelling images have focused on a dynamic opposition between two figures and/or objects, initially located in interiors, subsequently in landscapes. The tautness of the schematic drawing in these earlier works corresponds to the tensions exuded by the scene. Few of the works on view maintain that controlled intensity. Instead, a diffuse expressiveness is characterized by enlarged choppy brushstrokes, which layer several colors to create a form, and looser, sometimes (deliberately?) crude drawing, particularly of anatomy. Most disappointingly, whereas a strong appeal of Klein’s painting has been her ability to transfigure personal anxieties into signs with a shared meaning, several of the present works are numbingly abstruse. In Resurrection, 1982, an empty rowboat on a rectangular body of water spouts an enormous burst of water. What is going on here? Clues are gained by reading these paintings as if in a series. In Illusions of an Aging Child an oversized woman stands thigh-deep in a billowing sea, staring at a rowboat which again spurts water; it is as if one part of a self is transfixed by an “outburst” from another part which is otherwise empty. The milieu of both is that aqueous symbol of the unconscious, the sea. The paint-handling is rough, the colors raw—intense blue and acidic chartreuse,with a chalky, blurry figure against a greenish black sky. The painting seems “off,” unresolved. In a third work, Eye of the Storm, 1984, the small boat, again with no one at the tiller, plunges between, surging waves, intimating imminent capsize.

One problem with these weak “disasters” may be that they were painted from a Wordsworthian “spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling” rather than from “emotion recollected in tranquillity.” False Front, 1983, in which the brilliant red facade of a pitched-roof building sitting on water is split apart by explosive waves both within and without, is a dynamic symbol of convulsive bodily or mental disintegration, but what is its relationship to the spindly cross askew in the whirlpool nearby? Its significance remains obdurately private, and for that the work loses coherence.

One situation that effectively attains a universalized meaning is portrayed in Lover’s Leaves. Only the shadow of a figure is seen against the rectangle of crimson ground, as if he were standing behind a palm tree ready to embark on the path that curves from it to the horizon, or, alternatively, as if he were the memory/shade of one departed. Opposite, another tree’s branches—also in a blended mauve olive that is a tender contrast to the red—strains to arch over the trail. The very restraint with which this anguished subject is conveyed lends it a forceful poignancy that augurs well for the images to come after the “disasters” have subsided.

Suzaan Boettger