Seven paintings on canvas (all 2011) made up a recent New York show by Per Kirkeby. Though the 73-year old Danish painter, writer, poet and sculptor had a retrospective at London's Tate Modern in 2009, he is less well known in the U.S., at least for now.
Much is made of Kirkeby's early activity as an expedition geologist, and while the background is surely relevant, it has become an easy mythology for writers to fall back on. His imagery has been associated with sedimentary rock or arctic landscapes. More pertinent is the fact that over a four-decade painting career, the artist has shifted from Pop- and Fluxus-inflected idioms to what might be characterized as Romantic sublime expressionism.
All untitled, the paintings in the Michael Werner exhibition are in portrait format (78 3/4 x 63 inches), yet they clearly evoke landscapes, with leafy and watery passages throughout in vibrant blues and greens. (One work in particular brings to mind Monet's Water Lillies.) Flat areas of color are broadly laid down, then articulated with spindly, veinlike lines that are layered on top. The variation in brush sizes is limited, and it may be that Kirkeby uses only two or three: large for the irregular planes and small for the calligraphic strokes. Hand-made and deliberate, the paintings are the efforts of a skilled recorder of field notes.
Since the 1980s, Kirkeby has used graphic motifs (which originate in sketches) to underpin the gestural brushwork of his paintings. Looking at his images over the years, one can come to recognize a stump, a wood plank or head (elongated, featureless), but one cannot always decode their meanings.
Four of the paintings here seemed to share the same underlying structure: a rusty red half-circle in the upper left center, like the head of a sunflower, is counterbalanced by a similar shape, inverted, at the lower right, which could be its reflection in a shallow pool. As you stand facing the painting up close, one of these shapes is above your head, and the other at the lower reach of your right arm, encouraging an identification of your body with the painter's as he lays down mark after mark.
The graphomanic energy of Kirkeby's brushstrokes somehow comes across as soothing, not radical and disjunctive, as it did in some of his paintings of the 1960s. The artist works in tempera paint, prepared in his studio from an egg base. On the canvas it looks similar to oil paint, since it can be applied thickly and opaquely, as well as semi-transparently. Kirkeby's color is splendid and not obvious. His typical brown and green earth tones are challenged by sunny yellows, toxic-looking oranges, reds and red-violets.
There was nothing groundbreaking here, only a master of paint and his continued exploration of personal imagery in his own inimitable manner.