David Klamen

Simultaneously conservative and eerie, David Klamen’s recent paintings depict curiously quiet scenes enveloped in an amber haze. He conjoins a scrupulous realist technique of the most academic sort with a slavish commitment to treacly varnish. Immersed in layer upon layer of this syrupy stuff, his imagery is rendered all sepia and vaguely historicist, obscured and imprisoned under veneers of shiny gloss. Klamen creates a browned-out world with an attendant aura of instant nostalgia, mimicking the mummifying practices of early art conservation, and everywhere evoking a sense of painting’s possible function as an inventory of dead things.

Klamen uses imagery that is fully cornplicit with immersion in coatings of caramel varnish. He selects faux-romantic settings—an empty stairwell in an empty museum, vacant corridors in neo-Gothic universities, isolated heaths with a few clustered trees, a rocky inlet where a swan quietly grooms—places and situations already tinged with wistful and evocative associations. Klamen’s approach and attitude, his purposeful use of 19th-century subject matter and pictorial strategies along with their subsequent embalming, seems both hopelessly retardataire and vexingly modern. His art is a soothing fiction, a controlled and managed summoning forth of tendencies and impulses that are both beautiful and false. In ambition, scale, respect for tradition, craftsmanship, and moral tone as well, these are kin to salon pictures of a century and more ago, images that satisfy an appetite for bravura, realist painting with a nostalgic—but never kitsch—ambience. Klamen regularly attains vaguely neo-Wagnerian effects in his work; the swan that sedately moves across Untitled (Swan), 1993, is Lohengrin’s twin, solemnly limned, patiently commanding the stage and sure of its status as art.

Klamen employs two devices that undercut the moribund nature of many of his paintings. In some works he leaves a small but critical part of the picture unvarnished, making it an island of light radiating in a turgid brown sea. In Untitled (Vase), 1993, an Oriental porcelain vase stands in the center of its bereft stairwell, a lamp of art illuminating its esthetic isolation amidst a morass of monochrome emptiness. The vase becomes a quiet monument to the power of art, activating its environment in a very successful and moving way. In other works Klamen overlays images of musical staves above windswept landscapes or, odder yet, renders metal bars or tubes that hover above painstakingly realized interiors. All these alien intrusions do manage to deflate some of Klamen’s work, setting up pictorial languages that cannot be easily reconciled. The staves work best, in harmony with his Barbizon-like landscapes, while the neon and metal excrescences read more as overt disclaimers, undercutting the focused drama of their brown-grisaille worlds. Klamen’s slight, dissonant dislocations mostly wane in comparison with the overly determined contexts they seek to abrade, and he appears most clearly located as an artist in his ongoing paean to the possibilities still present within the traditions of art history.

James Yood