Walking into the Watkins Art Gallery to view the work of Deborah Kahn, the first thing one would notice is the color and then the surface of her paintings, inviting visitors to take a closer look at them.
“This is the most serious painting exhibition I’ve seen in D.C. in years,” Mark Oxman, a professor of sculpture, said about his fellow artist and faculty member.
Kahn, a Long Island-born painter, has been on the AU faculty since 1989. She began working on a Guggenheim Fellowship last September, resulting in a yearlong absence from teaching. While the work on display in Watkins dates between 2003 and 2004, only a couple of the paintings are from her most recent body of work, executed during the last few months while working on the fellowship.
“Most of the paintings were examples of work I submitted for the prize,” Kahn said.
The color and surface of the paintings seem to go hand-in-hand when investigating the work. The paintings are rough, which allows the surfaces to capture and hold light, creating a soft luminescence. The unframed pieces reveal her process the best; from the side, visitors can see layers of warm pinks and oranges subdued or eliminated by layers of cooler colors placed on top.
“One woman once said that I have a gluttonous use of color because I’m always trying to get the color just right,” Kahn said. “Because there are a gazillion colors to choose from, and if you notice there are hundreds of colors in those paintings, and they all have to be moved around.”
Those hundreds of colors are subtle, and peek out from behind mounds and globs of paint. The colors aren’t solid or keyed-up. They’re almost fragments of what the colors might have looked like before they were squeezed from the tube or removed from the mixing palette. The colors don’t hurt the eye, but are seductive and puzzle the intellect.
“I was surprised by how much paint was there,” said Carey Ross, a second-year master of fine arts candidate in studio art. “Even though it was so heavily painted, it still has a luminescent quality.”
The process Kahn uses is evident in the gallery. Situated on one wall are a series of drawings from her studio space, preparatory drawings, sketches she worked through before going to the canvas. At first the achromatic sketches disconnect viewers from the color and give the opportunity to rest one’s eye. But through some observation it’s easy to see how the drawings relate to the paintings. Through repeated forms in graphite and ink, one can see where Kahn moves through contour lines and shapes to isolate only what is most essential in the drawing. This translates to her mark-making in the paintings, where the linear elements aren’t so much the graceful flow of a single brush stroke, but more like the carving through the surface of the paint to expose what’s beneath.
“I don’t care about surface, but it serves the form. ... Everything has to add up to a convincing form, so if the surface takes away from the form then it has to be dealt with,” Kahn said. “In the end, the color has to draw the form.”
Kahn says, “It’s all about learning,” which is something she wanted to display with her Watkins exhibition. “It gives students the opportunity to see how a painter works through a painting.”
Kahn’s paintings are studies of works by old and modern masters.
“I draw from the old masters to learn about constructing space,” Kahn said. “The more I learn, the more confident I am in my process. I begin understanding things [within the old masterpieces] better, like secrets.”
As the drawings move into the paintings, the forms reduce further, and become analytical like the work of the early Cubist painters that also influence her.
“I draw from Cubism - it’s like a backbone - what I’ve learned from Picasso and now Braque,” Kahn said. “When you look at good painting, hopefully there is a lineage.”
It’s this lineage and process that gives her an informed intuition.
“If you give an overall view, I hope/believe that my work reflects my inner-self ... and if I’m truthful (about myself), then the pieces are also about truth,” Kahn said. “That’s why I draw from the old masters, this desire for truth.”
This desire for truth touches a psychological nature in her work.
“The hope is to go to a deep place, that it’s not only about making space,” Kahn said. And, as an artist, that something begins to paint through you.”
Her paintings contain figurative elements of torsos, limbs and heads. Eerily, some of the figures blend into one another, sharing limbs and torsos.
“I’m not a willful painter. I don’t approach the canvas with a concrete picture in mind and will it to happen. So, the paintings are not found in a willful way,” Kahn said. “But after looking at some of the forms I have made, I make the choice to leave them there or to keep working through them.”
“New Works,” by Deborah Kahn, will be on display in the Watkins Gallery until Feb. 5. The gallery is open Monday-Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 1 to 5 p.m. A reception will be held Jan. 21 from 5 to 7 p.m.