Washington, D.C.

Bayat Keerl

B.R. Kornblatt Gallery

Eleven larger and thirteen smaller works, all executed during the last decade, comprised this exhibition by Swiss-born artist Bayat Keerl. These paintings incorporate photographs as their physical and, in the best works, as their conceptual support, and so show an obvious connection to the work of artists such as Arnulf Rainer and Gerhard Richter. However, Keerl not only paints on his photographs, he also “draws” on them using light. This double manipulation is used not to focus attention on the self (as in Rainer) or on the nature of painting vis-à-vis photography (as in Richter), but to explore cultural perceptions of reality.

In the earlier works, Keerl uses a variety of studio props to demarcate space; his investigations of movement and dematerialization are reminiscent of Futurism. In Betula Alba, 1979, an aluminum stepladder is rotated while being photographed, producing a triple image with blurred “force” lines around it. Keerl overlays these “force” lines with prominent, gestural paint strokes, which echo the first stage of photographic manipulation and function as graphic marks that heighten the illusion of movement.

In later works such as Stature of Liberty, 1982, the “force” lines disappear and the stepladder is replaced by a nude posed before a commercially painted landscape backdrop. In Anableb Ambassis, 1984, the commercial backdrop becomes a roughly drawn image depicting the corner of an ancient Pompeian room. Steps, drawn in perspective partly on the wall and partly on the floor, increase the sense of illusion. These works suggest a more serious intent to Keerl’s art. Here the artist seems to be probing issues involving cultural notions of what constitutes the real as opposed to the illusory, art as opposed to nature. Unfortunately, although he foregrounds these issues, Keerl does not always exploit them; he often ignores the very questions engendered by his method. For instance, the implications concerning perception that are raised by blurring the boundaries between what are usually discrete modes of depiction—photography, painting, and a commercial backdrop—remain unexploited in Stature of Liberty, as does the relationship between art and nature that the landscape in this work evokes.

It is in Anabas Mass I, 1985, that the ramifications of Keerl’s working process are most evident. Though the title is obscure (it is taken from the name for a type of fish that climbs trees), here subject matter, media, and process gel into a complex, layered image. The ground is an actual landscape in which the artist was photographed holding a chair, which exists only as broken negative spaces between traces of gestural drawing. By loosely painting over this scene, Keerl mediates photography’s claims to an objective presentation of the world. The final stage of intervention by the artist is his “drawing” with a flashlight; in reality, the light is imbedded in the initial photographic stage of the work. Here the material and immaterial interact, fusing layers of imagery and prompting questions of the opacity and transparency of visual images. Keerl’s use of gesture in Anabas Mass I underscores the physical role of the artist in creating a work of art. While Keerl explores photography and painting as both culturally constructed modes of seeing and fabricating reality, not all the works demonstrate this notion persuasively.

Howard Risatti