The dust on butterflies’ wings — Wolf Kahn in pastels

The Hoyt Institute of Fine Art now features a special exhibition of works by Wolf Kahn in pastel, a medium what Khan calls his determining medium. On the one hand, it is special to show works in a medium whose directness and freshness are less known compared to oil paint; on the other hand, the show is more business-driven. The collection is from Khan’s associated gallery and every painting is for sale. The underlining drawback is that it is not a flashback of artist’s growth and changes in his long artistic career, but instead a show of recent works: All works are freshening even bordering experimenting, but none go beyond his own color theory which signifies his late mature works.

It is almost impossible to describe Khan’s style in one or two words. In his early days, he was influenced by George Seurat. Such an impact of the optical color-mixing from pointillism resides in his pastel works even though his subjects matter has become succinct to almost abstract. In the current show, he chose white water-color paper exclusively. The irregular rugged surface naturally pops out in forms of tiny spots optically mixed with color patches, thus providing a more luminous atmosphere. His blending, on the other hand, reminds me of George Inness. Layers of colors float on top of each other as if there exists such inner glow that drives those colors out of the paper.

Kahn did not deny the influence of modern painters which is synthesized in his works. When being viewed from a distance, Khan’s semi-minimalism works indicate more depth in colors than space from perspective. Such depths loosely relates him with Rothko, however, they differ not only in subjects (Khan’s are more representational), but also in the degree of meditation. In Kahn, there is an illusion of movement in those abstract colored shapes. When those pastel works are viewed closely, the traces of creativity can be as easily identified as those in Pollock’s works: either in the complicated light on the wall, or among the branches of woods, he applied his strokes in abandoning style, yet the layer relationship between each color seems both improvising and controlled. When his works are examined with focus on stroke structure, one can see how he dragged in effort the defining lines on top of other base layers. If De Kooning explored the possibility of the driest method for oil painting with his newspaper, direct tube, then Khan somehow tries to reach the same kind of stroke effect by making the driest medium look wet. Those strokes, thin or thick, are a variety from less defined to very rugged and demands viewers to explore hidden energy under the peace.

But above all, viewing works by Kahn is essentially an examination of his signified color theory. No matter whether the painting is abstract (for woods topics) or representational (for barn topics), it is the colors that draw spectators to discover beyond the subject matters: How do the colors interplay with shapes and lines and what kind of mood do they lead to?

In his woods series, paintings are composed of levels of stripes, triangles or irregular rectangles, whose simplicity is disrupted by vertical tree trunks. (The tree trunks are further disillusioned from a variety of horizontal short branches) However, colors play up the foreground from confrontational relationship but play down trunks by dissolving them. Thus when the crowns are founded again popping out of the sky, there is a sense of intimacy and satisfaction obtained through the discovery.

Here are some of his words about colors:

For the artist, purple has special qualities. The smallest variation in density of tone is significant. Purple can be made to appear airy or heavy. (Try to make a heavy yellow or an airy black.) It can describe a wide range of psychological meanings, from celebratory to tragic.

Bright orange is one of those really good attention-grabbing colors. It resists being used in a subtle way….It seems made to order to represent intensity, exuberance, and heightened feelings generally, without the hidden threats as does the color red. It relates wonderfully to cool blues….It has a very complex relation with magenta, red-purple, and an equally strong one with blue green….

There remains the question of when, exactly, to employ this useful color…The answer is: in fall, and at the time of brilliant sunsets. Then no one can quarrel with one’s use of orange, since it is sanctioned by actual occurance in nature.

The exhibition “Wolf Kahn Pastels” can be seen at Hoyt Institute of Fine Art until Sept 28, 2007.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.


I am linking this post at my blog, today. I am left wondering what you think of Kahn’s pastels. I notice that people often qualify his pastels versus oils, and am mystified by that, myself.
I like your blog and will be reading here.

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