For those of us who aren’t poets or art historians, talking about abstract paintings can sometimes be a bit of a sweaty-palmed endeavor. There’s a mystery to them that can be frustrating to verbalize and an internal logic that can be wholly indecipherable; if you’re not careful, you may realize halfway through a conversation, plastic cup of wine in hand, that what you’re saying is complete goobledygook. Good abstraction is like a foreign language written in colors and forms instead of letters and words. Non-native speakers beware.
But unlike some modern and contemporary abstraction, which can be stand-offish in its formality, Caroline Kent’s work invites you in and gives you a glossary. Her current show at Public Functionary, which closes next Saturday and is well worth a look, is a controlled explosion of neon colors, deliberate geometry, and strange symbology writ large on imposing black canvases. It is a dense, personal show, playful and fun in some places, serious and foreboding in others, even spiritual or magical if you’re so inclined. You’ll get out of it what you put in.
Omni: Places Like These You Bump Into Everyone You Know, Acrylic on canvas, 9 x 6’
This body of work began as a series of 80+ small studies on black paper, and it’s a shame there aren’t more to see than the few on display here. Kent describes them as “an effort to define a painting language” after a three-year hiatus from the medium, and it might have been interesting to see more of this alphabet taking shape. Simple forms, quickly painted shapes, and hand-stamped patterns make up colorful scenes that pop off the black paper, their angular gray frames jutting out into space like hoods and bellies. Some feature collaged photographs referencing anonymous people and forgotten places. In time, your eyes will see what they want to: a cartoon skeleton with knobby shoulders perhaps, or a purple-skirted little girl swarmed by fireflies. They are interesting vignettes, portentous and meaningful, like still frames from an unknown film.
But the stars of the show are Kent’s massive works on canvas. At six feet wide and nine feet tall, they are monumental in scale, large enough to engulf the viewer bodily. They’re like massive doorways into space, floor-to-ceiling windows looking out onto trippy vistas that beg you to engage. The brushwork is quick and unassuming but tightly controlled; bizarre, flatly painted shapes form fantastical, bombastic scenes. We might think of them as whimsical if they weren’t so incredibly big. Procession, one of the more exuberant pieces in the show, had me seeing whales and headdresses floating symmetrically in space, connected in the middle by a white-lined rainbow and a pink, brainish haze. It’s like seeing shapes in the clouds: once you label them in your mind, they can be hard to unsee. But I enjoy these paintings even more knowing that such ludicrous visions are mine, and likely mine alone. The work is encouraging that playfulness; as far as I can tell, there are no right or wrong answers. Like psychedelic hallucinations or religious epiphanies, these paintings will speak to every viewer differently.
Procession, acrylic on canvas, 9 x 6’
Keen observers may notice similarities between Kent’s newly developed language and that of current popular design. Her vocabulary of quick, controlled strokes and flat, randomized geometry feels very Right Now. You can hardly throw a rock these days without skipping it through one of those wire-frame polygons so prevalent in current visual culture, and a few of them pop up here. Whether that’s for better or for worse is ultimately a matter of taste; you may find certain elements of the work here refreshingly current or off-puttingly hip. But zoom out a bit and you’ll get back into unfamiliar waters. The work will take you where you let it.
There is more to talk about with this show, not least of which are Kent’s small studies on typewriter paper, which openly mock our attempts to make sense of it all. They are a sweet, understated turn of the knife. But I’ll stop here and instead encourage you to go and look for yourself. As a parting thought, it may be worth noting that “Joyful is the Dark” is also the title of a Christian hymn written in the 1980s. I have no idea what Kent’s relationship to religion is, but the first lines of the hymn fit nicely with this show’s ethereal sensibility: “Joyful is the dark, holy, hidden God, rolling cloud of night beyond all naming.” There’s a joyfulness, a satisfaction, to be found in the unknowns here. Take a moment to stare at the rolling cloud of night and see what you see.
-- Russ White
Caroline Kent: Joyful Is The Dark is on view at Public Functionary in Northeast Minneapolis through July 23rd with gallery hours Tuesday 4 to 8, Wednesday Noon to 4, Friday Noon to 7, and Saturday Noon to 4. See more of Caroline's work on her website.