Every few decades, painting dies. Thankfully, painters are a resourceful bunch. With the advent of photography in the late 1800s, they abandoned verisimilitude for abstraction. When abstraction ended up in a cul-de-sac lined with plain white squares, they turned to commercial labels and advertising for inspiration. And now that digital media can render every fantasy in incredibly realistic detail, the so-called “lowbrow” style has returned to the scrappy, hand-drawn qualities of graffiti and underground comic books.
Contemporary artist Alex Kanevsky takes a different approach. His work revisits the original tension between painting and photography. His nudes and landscapes (classic painterly subjects) — as seen in the exhibition “Instances of Stillness” — flirt with the immediacy of photos yet assert their identity as thoughtfully crafted art objects. They remind us that looking isn't just an idle pastime, but also a constructive, evolving activity.
Drawing on both images and live models, Kanevsky's pieces are a blend of the flat, monocular vision of the camera and the shifting, emotionally inflected gaze of the artist. Landscape With Grass, for example, is a tight close-up of a tangle of green blades. From afar it looks like a snapshot, with high-contrast areas of light and dark; up close, it dissolves into a mass of virtuoso brushwork.
Other images in the exhibit also flicker between the two mediums. In the male nude A.S. , the lower part of the man's right arm is streaked with blue from the background, as if a slice has been cut into it. The errant part appears to be rendered at a slightly different angle from the rest of the limb, an effect that would be difficult to capture with the camera's lens but could easily reflect a slight turn of the painter's head. This unfaithfulness to photographic convention is evidence of both human fallibility and the extended time frame of painting itself. Although Kanevsky is concerned with capturing a point in time, it's a moment that extends well beyond the snap of a shutter. The necessarily slower, contemplative act of painting reveals itself in these slight variations in perspective and angle. Baring them subverts the authority of the camera.
All the images in the show are caught in this indeterminate time, between the specificity of the moment and the passing of time implied by the layering of paint. In each image, you can see Kanevsky at work: tentatively laying down a line, then scraping and pulling it back, revising, reshaping. He works as much with the palette knife as with the brush, leaving traces where the paint has been rubbed away and reapplied. The finished pieces are beautiful not for their subject matter or colors (which are quotidian and muted), but for the honesty with which they disclose their fabrication. Kanevsky may be more exposed than his models.
In Blue Bathroom, for instance, a barely-here-and-then-gone female figure bends before a basin. The woman's flesh appears to melt into the surrounding blue walls, as if reflected in a foggy bathroom mirror. It's an achingly gorgeous effect, a perfect expression of the attempt to capture a fleeting mood or moment, even as it disappears.
Sometimes paint simulates effects captured on film. In Bathtub With Movement, an almost unrecognizable figure stands bent over in a white claw-foot tub, her back a mass of layered brush strokes and abrasions that suggest the busy motion of scrubbing. Here, the brushwork not only echoes the action it depicts, but also re-creates the photographic effect of blurred motion and reminds us of the presence of the painter's hand. No small feat for a simple picture of a woman taking a bath.
This complex treatment of unremarkable subjects turns these images into reasons to paint rather than ends in themselves. And Kanevsky is clearly and self-consciously engaged with art history. The bather obviously refers to the work of impressionist Edgar Degas, known for his unidealized, voyeuristic images of women in their baths. Interior With Meat, depicting an industrial-size rack of sides of beef, seems out of place among the nudes until you recall the work of mid-20th-century British painter Francis Bacon, who famously combined butchered meat and human figures to visceral, nightmarish effect. Although Kanevsky's pieces are more like daydreams, he quotes Bacon (whose scoured surfaces and flat color he also draws heavily upon) to imply that painting the figure is like painting a side of meat — flesh is flesh. The painter's concerns are the same: light, mass, color, line, and form. In engaging the work of other artists, Kanevsky situates his oeuvre within a tradition and teases out the issues of vision and craft with which painters have grappled for more than a century.
Kanevsky's paintings impress because they address problems of representation and reference art history in engaging ways. They're rigorous but not overly intellectual, intimate without being sappy, honest yet kind. They reinvigorate painting without feeling either trendy or old-fashioned. But why should we care that painting survives — except that it is, at times, beautiful? We should care not for beauty's sake, but because the form contains a basic truth about how we capture our own experience and represent it to others. It reminds us that self-expression is messy and biased, and can never hope to fully convey the intensity and immediacy of everyday life. In painting's failure lies its appeal: It's so thoroughly human.