Stop making sense

By KEN GREENLEAF  |  April 17, 2013

George Maciunas, a founder and central figure in the Fluxus group, delighted in breaking the boundaries between art, performance, and music, and even more in collapsing peoples' expectations around art (or, for that matter, anything else). That anarchic sense of breaking apart the ordinary order of things to create a new coherence is observable in Kirkeby's work in this show. It comes up in a material sense in Kirkeby's work in chalk and chalkboard paint on Masonite. These are subject to erasure and are by their nature temporary — it's the opposite of our expectation that a work will endure past the lifetime of its maker. It was the kind reversal of the normal that Maciunas loved.

In the later paintings the ironic atmosphere of collapse and restoration is transformed toward a formal sincerity. The subversion of expectations has evolved into a mood of engagement with the process of the apprehension. Their disorder is a conceptual cousin of the disorder of nature — that is to say, the sense of chaos only lasts until we accept that there is no disorder at all. Kirkeby continuously requires that we reexamine that which we thought we knew.

The big 'Earthquake.' (1983) is a good example. An earthquake is one of nature's ways of shifting from an unsustainable state of order to a new and more stable one. The large painting (154 inches wide by 78 high) seems to gather itself into coherence.

Another large painting, 'Untitled" (2009), depicts three horses, recalling Degas and perhaps the Chauvet cave paintings. It is not, of course, about horses, whose presence in the work is at most an evocation of the experience of nature, without need for a narrative.

There is no apparent captive in 'The Prisoner of the Holy Agony,' but the underlying presence of such a condition exists presents a more frightening prospect than any number of the self-flagellating images so beloved of early and medieval Christians and modern conceptual performances.

Kirkeby's fascination with mining the history of art and restructuring it into his own thinking (as well as, indeed, his own identity) also informs the bronze sculptures included in this exhibit. The gesture implicit in Rodin's best work is present in the 'Large Head' (1984) and again in 'Arm and Head' (1984). The proportions of the small 'Gate' (1981) are sufficiently close to Rodin's monumental 'Gates of Hell' to bring it immediately to mind.

Meanwhile, 'Inventory XX' (2002) recalls Matisse's 'Backs.' Yet this is not appropriation, nor even quotation. It is analogous, perhaps, to a modern composer including a baroque fugue structure in a thoroughly contemporary work. It is something we recognize and appreciate as an included reference, but the final result is Kirkeby's alone.

We are given context, but as a matter of guiding principle for our own experience, rather than as an imposition by others. This is how science works best: by giving us tools to understand not necessarily how things really are, but how we can interpret them. The conceptual detachment that Kirkeby applies to his method results in a profound and very personal humanism. Kirkeby is, I believe, not only aware of this apparent paradox, he intends to evoke it. ^

"PER KIRKEBY: PAINTINGS AND SCULPTURE" | through July 14 | at Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 9400 College Station, Brunswick | 207.725.3124 | bowdoin.edu/art-museum

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