Kn Thurlbeck

Jon Oulman Gallery

In each of Kn Thurlbeck’s mostly large, brooding works, found objects are juxtaposed with a photographic fragment against a broad, empty field of paint. The oil pigment is thinned out so that it runs down a bit after it is applied, suggesting rain on a windowpane. These runnels of paint—primarily black—drip down over both photograph and object, partially obscuring their identity, sometimes exposing portions of unprimed canvas. The effect is to create a dense, moody atmosphere rather than textural weight.

Thurlbeck’s fierce paintings invoke notions of spirituality, self-sacrifice, and dread. Their dark, expressive spaces challenge the viewer to uncover obscure relationships between object and image. Thurlbeck’s cryptic dramas seem to represent acts of atonement, reconciliation, or retribution, yet the reasons for these acts are never made explicit. In one small untitled painting, for example, the image of a crouching male figure is hidden by veils of black paint and overlaid with a crosslike configuration of barbed wire, while in another black painting from the same series, a color image of a tiger, taken from a poster, is juxtaposed with another image of the same male figure, now in a different pose. American Humor, a large square diptych, features a blowup of the profile of a man screaming in pain or rage, splattered with streams of blood-red paint that have dripped from above, as if from the pair of severed mannequin hands that jut out from the top of the painting. On one side of Memory Without Mercy, a narrow 12-foot-long work, the same figure bends over, with his hands clasped in prayer behind his head; attached to the other end of the painting is a miniature gold pietà with a bloodied, beheaded Jesus.

The photographic fragments in these works are self-portraits (Thurlbeck is also a performance artist), showing himself in poses taken from Hopi, Tibetan, and other rituals. Once the viewer learns this, though, the works are drained of any universal quality and become confusing in their mix of cultural, religious, and personal references. At worst they read as appropriations of the beliefs of other cultures; at best they function as compelling but undecipherable records of personal anguish filtered through the borrowed rituals. Ultimately, the ambiguity of Thurlbeck’s content suffocates his provocative imagery and materials. Their spiritual and psychological impact is undercut, causing the paintings to appear melodramatic rather than dramatic.

Mason Riddle