October 31 - November 28, 2007
“I am nature.”
Jackson Pollock – 1942, quoted in an interview with Lee Krasner in 1964
“I am what is around me.
Women understand this:
one is not duchess a hundred yards from a carriage.”
Wallace Stevens, from the poem, “Theory” published in 1923
Attributed to painter Jackson Pollock and authored by poet Wallace Stevens respectively, both statements share a Whitmanesque notion of immersing one’s self in nature, an idea very much at the heart of Arthur Kvarnstrom’s paintings. But to understand how Kvarnstrom fits into this distinctly American tradition requires examining how these two statements reflect fundamental differences.
Of the two, the painter’s claim is the more sweeping. Pollock’s famous
declaration, made in conversation with the painter Hans Hoffman, without question argues for complete immersion into nature, a position consistent with Pollock’s legendary disregard for consequences. In contrast to Pollock’s abandon, the poet Stevens takes a more cautious, introspective path toward the same basic experience – that of losing oneself in one’s surroundings – making the alternate case for a measured immersion, acquired through a conscious awareness of distance.
Stevens’ assertion, made twenty years earlier than Pollock’s, but interestingly at the same age (forty-four) as the painter at his demise in 1956, is wisely conditional. Recognizing the potential for nature’s overlapping complexities to fold in on you, a phenomenon discernible in Pollock’s work, Stevens insisted on holding to the tether of observation; exploiting instead the inevitable tension and ambiguity that arises when observer and observed vie for dominance. It is a similar tension that defines Arthur Kvarnstrom’s painting.
Kvarnstrom paints on-site – plein-air in art historical terminology – and therefore limits his immersion by a steady accounting of proximity; resisting the same pull to which Stevens had cautioned, and to which Pollock had surrendered. It is important to note this distinction because Kvanstrom’s surface can be easily misread as expressionism. In Orange Building, for example, the surface seems to imply an emphasis on spontaneity by its mosaic texture of bare ground outlining irregular strokes. But this effect is neither the result of accident, nor is it a mere byproduct of an arbitrarily chosen style. It is in fact a necessary function of a humble technique that accepts as given, the painted surface, spatial illusion, and the painter’s distance from the subject – all considered on equal terms. In Kvarnstrom’s work, gesture is not an invitation to celebrate spontaneity. It is evidence of a painting method, consistently applied, that embraces and incorporates the idea that immersion will be partial and temporary. In other words, because Kvarnstrom’s immersion is never total, his work is never just about immersion.
To fully appreciate the canvases in this exhibition requires persistence. It takes time to dismiss the notion of ambivalence with which they seem at first glance to have been painted. They are, as careful study will reveal, greater than the sum of their parts. In Trees Kvarnstrom places us along a path in New York’s Riverside Park facing a group of sycamore trees in full autumnal display. An overwhelmingly dominant yellow seems at first to be punctuated only by a dark green band in the distance behind three vertical trunks. The upper half of the picture is articulated further by a few strokes of an earthy green, which give the branches just enough presence to surprise us with a sense of spatial organization not immediately apparent in the flat, painterly yellows. But when one recognizes small contrasting strokes of light and dark among the leaves as windows in a partially hidden building, an unexpected architectural mass appears, opening the space to yet deeper recesses. The painting no longer seems as flat as it did at first glance. A simple view of a city park is thus rendered for us in a manner as visually intricate as the many sensations we encounter in experiencing a simple view in a city park.
Kvarnstrom also has a firm yet intuitive sense of composition. In Voss House, the dark structure on the right, with its murky windows, would have created a spatial imbalance but for the subtle inclusion of a patch of sky passing through a lower window from the opposite wall, effectively puncturing the solidity of the house, and rebalancing the painting’s generous sense of space. The design is then further girded by a repetition of proportion in both the sunlit roof on the right, and in the large open sky dominating the upper left corner, both of which approximate the overall proportion of the canvas itself. The artist assures me this was not arrived at through geometric calculation, but adjusted intuitively.
Precursors can be readily cited for a painter so dedicated to the plein-air tradition, but Fairfield Porter is Kvarnstrom’s preference and is certainly not a controversial choice. The painterly technique of Porter’s mature work, which, unlike Kvarnstrom’s, affirms the mid-century penchant for bravura paint-handling, was nevertheless brought to bear on the same difficult task of finding ratios comparable to the elusive sensations that constitute color perception. Like Porter, Kvarnstrom’s striving for a true rendering of light, the most demanding aspect of the profession, is his ultimate and defining ambition.
Red Trucks, oil on panel - 16” x 24”
Autumn Fields & Road, oil on linen - 26” x 38”
Orange Building, oil on panel - 16” x 24”
Red Houseboat, oil on canvas - 30” x 52”
Ringwood Bridge, oil on panel - 24” x 20”
Trees, oil on panel - 24” x 24”
White Barn & Road, oil on canvas - 22” x 28”
Rainy Day, Great Cranberry, oil on canvas - 24” x 40”
White House, Great Cranberry, oil on canvas - 22” x 36”
Voss House, oil on canvas - 24” x 44”Sunny Day, Cranberry Island,
oil on canvas - 20” x 30”
Canal Reflections, oil on panel - 12” x 32”
White Boat and Bridge, oil on panel - 8” x 15”
Cloud Reflections, watercolor - 8” x 10” Red Hook Morning,
watercolor - 8” x 10”
Van Campen Glen, watercolor - 9” x 12”
Yellow Piers, watercolor - 8” x 10”
Stream, watercolor - 9” x 12”
Trees, Pond at Stonehouse, watercolor - 6” x 9”