Mitchell Kane

Robbin Lockett Gallery

Mitchell Kane’s new paintings are at once marginal and authoritative. Nine recent works constituted this exhibition, of which five, occupying Lockett’s rear-gallery “inner sanctum,” functioned as a kind of installation. The works gathered in the rear gallery were called “Margin Paintings”: 7-by-5-foot rectangles of aluminated rubberized canvas on stretchers, with an approximately 15-inch-wide vertical band of enamel on gesso—executed in shades of white, brown, chestnut, orange, or yellow—occupying each painting’s right-hand edge. There is a superficial resemblance here to the austere painted fields of Barnett Newman. But the greater visible portion of Kane’s paintings is the rubber-coated canvas, whose dusty brown, slightly scuffed slickness resists misreading as paint. Kane’s painted areas, too, are involved in a different chromatic rhetoric than Newman’s purist primaries. The younger artist’s palette is reminiscent of the sleek avocados, desert sands, and goldenrods of kitchen appliances. The collective title could be construed as a pun on the marginalizing of painting as a critical artistic practice, but another, gruesome, nontitular reference comes from that elastic canvas, the material of body bags. If painting is dead, this body of works is a display of corpses.

In the front gallery, Warranty (Spanish-French, Spanish-French), 1988, consists of two panels of honeycombed aluminum, mounted approximately three inches apart and covered in white gesso, on which the photo-enlarged words to a limited warranty—written in French and Spanish—have been silkscreened in vivid chartreuse. The text “rests” upon its left column margin so that the lines of type ascend the front of each panel. An unstretched sheet of waxed rubberized canvas, similar to the material of the “Margin Paintings,” is visible beneath and between the panels. Here is an artwork literally “covered” in a language of qualifications and demurrals, displaying its conditional status as an aspect of its physical makeup. Let the (art) buyer beware.

Two untitled works are paradigms of obliquity, comprehensible only when viewed from the side. Each consists of a painting masked by an aluminum panel, itself coated in “good taste,” dark-gray enamel, to which a close-up photograph of paper dinner-napkins has been laminated. The panels are slightly larger than the canvases to whose edges they have been bolted; they are suspended in front of the paintings at a distance of about 3 inches. This is just enough room to see that the surface of each canvas has been painted in elegant monochrome; one in vivid, nearly International Klein Blue, and the other in a cool mint green. The gallery checklist describes the aluminum appurtenances as “frontispieces,” and this term of literary precession seems appropriate to the ironic reflection on manners and mannerisms inferred from the photographs of the paper napkins. Within the margins of the photographs, the napkins are arranged so as to evoke the compositional dynamics of constructivist painting, attempting—and failing—to simulate not only the higher social status of cloth napkins, but Modernism’s utopian component. In the shadow of Kane’s elaborate masking apparatus, his paintings, executed with subtle virtuosity, refute the false claims placed in front of them.

Kane is remarkably adept at converting the phenomenal resources of painting into elements of a critique of representation. Yet the most compelling aspect of his art is its undermining of its own rhetorical edifices through the methods of its making, evidence of an estheticism that is obdurate in its resistance to explanation.

Buzz Spector