What goes down in the studio, in the coordination between hand and eye, in the blending of passion and intelligence, in the urge toward meaning, generally has little to do with what goes down in art writing and academic discourse in the name of theory. Before there are words there are images, or objects or actions of one kind or another, and that’s been the case in the art of our time regardless of whether that art has been abstract or representational, modernist or postmodernist, installation or assemblage or performance or even conceptual. Yet there persist claims that painting in particular became persuaded during the last half-century to reduce itself to its essence because formalist critics had perceived purity as having been painting’s guide since the whole last century began. Thus did a perception of pictorial development become projected upon, and confused with, pictorial inent.
Which is not to say formal issues don’t matter in the studio, far from it. As surely as images precede words, just as surely are formal issues bound to content, to enabling its articulation and earning its credibility, to testing and stretching its reach while acknowledging its limits and thereby tethering it to lived experience. In a modern world where all experience is problematic, those acknowledgments--of painting’s flatness, for instance--aim not inward to provide hermetic, self-indulgent, art for art’s sake contemplation, as we’re often told, but outward to provide frameworks for the expression of thoughts and feelings that we as beholders are in turn free to know, not in the way we know matters of opinion but in the way we know matters of fact, which is with the conviction that they are neither arbitrary nor merely personal but objective--and true.
|Don Voisine, Tumble, 2011-12, oil on wood, 60 x 32 inches (Alejandra von Hartz Gallery, Miami, FL).
|Don Voisine, Full Stop, 2011, oil on wood, 28 x 22 inches (McKenzie Fine Art, New York, NY).
|Don Voisine, Carré, 2011, oil on wood, 44 x 44 inches (McKenzie Fine Art, New York, NY).
Ken Greenleaf’s geometries are of a different order. They’re mostly irregular polygons that combine only fragments of the geometries we’re familiar with, triangles, squares, rectangles and so forth, into hybrids whose radical abstractness strongly resists naming. They’re also restless, constantly jostling and probing the flattened spaces they occupy, interacting with and against them, and energizing them in the process. And finally they’re pretty clearly worked by hand, whether in acrylic on raw canvas, charcoal collages, or oil pastels, which in each case imparts to them an aura of physical presence that in turn heightens their immediacy. I think Greenleaf’s welded steel sculpture, on which he focused his studio practice for most of three decades starting in the early 1970s, here becomes relevant. Fully abstract like his paintings and drawings, it everywhere comprises planes and armatures that literally as well as visually overlap or splay and angle into space in order to frame or extend it. Such shared effects tempt us to account for the paintings and drawings by appealing to the sculpture, a reasonable gambit for a stylistic analysis, but only insofar as we’re willing to also allow that the paintings and drawings equally reveal how essentially pictorial the sculpture was in the first place. What I’m suggesting is that Greenleaf’s current work represents a defining aspect of his artistic enterprise and persona, one that’s been there all along but has only become foregrounded with his shift from a three-dimensional art to a two-dimensional art. Which is another way of saying his art has become more fully his own.
|Ken Greenleaf, Alea, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 26 x 23 inches.
|Ken Greenleaf, Blackwork 8, 2012, charcoal on paper, 8 ½ x 11 inches.
|Ken Greenleaf, Gauge 33, 2012, oil pastel on paper, 8 ½ x 11 inches.
Don Voisine and Ken Greenleaf. Linear and painterly. Intellectual and emotional. Idealism and realism. Being and becoming. Classical and Romantic. I invoke Heinrich Wolfflin here, along with the sweeping generalizations of art’s larger history, and in doing so I take liberties with both artists. But I do so not to contextually aggrandize them, only to suggest that what goes down in their studios, which is the art of modernist painting, is perhaps larger and more expansive than art writing and academic discourse in the name of theory sometimes lead us to believe.
Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University.