For the 61-year-old Swiss-German artist Miriam Cahn, now having her first U.S. show at Elizabeth Dee on West 20th Street in Chelsea, art-making is an atavistic affair. She made many works timed around her menstrual cycle, to root them in the natural processes of womanhood, and produced large black-and-white drawings using her entire body to make marks on large sheets of paper on the floor.
“I strew the black chalk dust on white papers,” Cahn explains. “I crawl, cower, kneel on the sheets to read in the dust with my hands.” Smoky images of birds and fish emerge, apparitions from dark country dreamings, images physically pulled and molded from the elemental powder. A figure resembling an illuminated column rises in the darkness like a ghostly stream of light, topped with a hovering black mask. A graceful ebony horse, like one from Lascaux, balances on slender legs.
Her work since the ‘90s, no longer made on the floor, includes paintings suffused with incandescent color. Cahn’s modest renderings of faces, animals, houses and landscapes throb with emotion. Strangely androgynous hairless heads with piercing eyes stare out of paintings with phosphorescent backgrounds. The photos that may have inspired them sometimes hang nearby, often snapped directly from TV.
In Mutterlich (2010), a roughly scribbled image of a bubble-headed mother with pendulous breasts leaning over an infant with prominent female genitals, Cahn easily channels a child's elusive vision, recovering the origins of everyone’s ability to draw. As if to reach back even further, Weltaffin (2010) depicts a bust of a naked creature, a hybrid of woman and chimpanzee, perhaps an emblem of Cahn’s artistic excavation of humanity’s ancient origins. The show is up until Apr. 2, 2011.
Jonas Wood at Anton Kern
In distinct contrast to Cahn’s romantic sense of isolation, the Boston-born painter Jonas Wood, who lives in Los Angeles with his Japanese wife and their baby, is an artist much more rooted in an everyday reality. Wood is a tall bearded Celtics fan who effortlessly spills out lushly patterned paintings based on collages made from snapshots of his family, friends, exhibitions and favorite basketball players. It’s like his subjects are in his genes.
His current show at Anton Kern is his most ambitious yet. Though rendered in a folksy style, Wood’s world is one of extreme complexity, packed with patterned things and pictures of pictures, all liquefied into a Matissean Red Studio-style patchwork of color and shape that sits on the threshold between the real and the abstract. His work keeps company with Stuart Davis, Milton Avery and Grandma Moses as well.
The show’s largest work is The Hypnotist (2011), an enormous interior dominated by a Hollywood hypnotist who successfully helped Wood quit smoking. Wood himself sits in profile off to the side, while the therapist stares out from a chair in the center, his wooden face resembling a cigar store Indian. A framed article about Oprah Winfrey can be found among the many landscapes hanging on the wall, a symphony of blue and white that’s echoed in the stripes on books, sofa pillows and the hypnotist’s shirt.
Wood’s phenomenal fluency is even more apparent in Kern’s back room, where 33 framed drawings in gouache and colored pencil on paper hang salon-style on two walls. Studies for most of the paintings in front can be found, as well as seven pictures of basketball players, four renditions of his own paintings hanging in shows, three bathrooms and much more, all making up a giddy exposition of an insatiable visual appetite. Prices range from $4,000 for the smallest work on paper to $50,000 for the hypnotist’s living room and, as is usually the case at Kern, almost everything is sold. The show closes tomorrow, Mar. 26, 2011.
Frank Calloway at Andrew Edlin
Color and pattern and a whimsical naiveté was also the stuff at Andrew Edlin Gallery, which recently closed an exhibition of drawings by Alabama native Frank Calloway, an African-American artist whose birth date has been publicized as 1896 but may in fact be later, making him somewhere between 96 and 112. Calloway’s glowing neon processions of houses, trains and cows, all made in the last ten years, stretched mural-like along the gallery walls, done on rolls of butcher paper.
After being discovered lost and disoriented, Calloway was diagnosed as schizophrenic and admitted to Tuscaloosa’s Bryce Hospital in 1952. He worked in the hospital’s vegetable garden and took care of their animals until a 1972 federal court outlawed patient labor. He’s been drawing his radiant memories of animals and structures in crayon and marker since he took an art class in the ‘80s.
Usually dressed in overalls and working at a table by a window, Calloway uses the bottom of an urn as a template for anything round. Geometry and arithmetic are clearly inspirations -- rows of mysterious numbers are sometimes included at the bottom of his drawings, which can measure up to 30 feet long. Calloway also likes to recite multiplication tables aloud.
The elements in Calloway’s drawings are carefully constructed with very little variation. Chimneys always have black smoke flowing to the left, houses are set on pilings with numerous descending stairways, and horns and lights emit rays of sound and illumination. Hybrid cow-horses ride in cages or graze on grass, with udders or penises dangling from rectangular bodies. Drivers always face to the left, resting one arm above the other on the steering wheel. Passengers have the same configuration, as if they are reaching for nothing, like dolls.
The show was marvelously installed in several tiers that wound around corners. The layers of trains moving one after the other and one atop the other echoed the layers of stories in the houses. Oranges, greens, pinks, reds and purples set off a shuffling of vibrant textures and colors as Calloway's succession of Technicolor vehicles continued their perpetual circus parade. Prices ranged from $2,500 to $15,000; the show was on view Feb. 9-Mar. 12, 2011.
ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and writer.