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In viewing nature, fundamental forms can be typified; their variations are innumerable. Evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould has noted: "Humans are pattern-seeking animals," a bias he follows through on by adding: "More general principles of structure must underlie all systems that proceed through history...." D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson based his fascinating analysis of biological processes, On Growth and Form, on that belief. Kimberly Piotrowski's "Recent Paintings," on exhibition at Fassbender Gallery, 835 West Washington, Chicago, incorporates the pattern and structure of biological processes in what seem part surreal/part bright and wry mannerist flights of fancy. This showing, "Kim Piotrowski: Recent Paintings" is on display through July 8, 2000 in the Project Room of the Fassbender Gallery.
The gallery statement notes that Piotrowski seems to draw her inspiration from (is it?) Gray's Anatomy. One does discern the patterns and forms of organic structure, and, in some paintings, the telling inclusion of surgical tools which, in raw theory, might seem curious, if not macabre. But Piotrowski's acrylic paintings on linen are no such creature. They do display an 'unnatural' palette, but it is light and bright, and at times approaches 'designer color.' Where she abstracts body organs, they become lively, efflorescent elements which function much like decorative floral garlands and festoons. In a work such as Adapter (60"x60") or Harvest (60"x60"), they appear to dance in corporeal ensembles recalling the Neo-Mannerist automatons of painter Kurt Seligmann: as in the latter's post-Surrealist Souvenir of America (1943). Even those affinities are deceiving. Kimberly Piotrowski is at play with life's patterns and the chemist's pigments. In this, her art renews an old legacy: art historian France Borel noted: "...during the Quattrocentro, painters bought their pigments from apothecaries supervised by medical doctors, and so they mutually cultivated their relations." (In The Seduction of Venus, Rizzoli: 1990). Piotrowski mixes her acrylic pigments herself, and finds a kinship with modern surgery: in both cases, plastic enters into the work at hand.
Piotrowski's current linens often counterpoint tighter, detailed compositional ensembles against broad background color contours. Biological design plays against contour and color: the macabre is lifted into art. In part, it is the artist's expressed intent to release growth and form from conventional categories by abstracting their patterns and shapes. The paintings in this showing do present pictorial citations from the texts of anatomy, but the artist follows no literalism. Her approach allows a viewer's associations to break free and range, while offering enough figurative reference to draw any responses back to natural artifact. Piotrowski's acrylic on canvas, Wallflowers (36"x36"), elicited just such a such response at the exhibit's opening. Gallery visitor's were drawn into much discussion over Wallflowers: some interpreted the focal elements as viscera, glandular forms, ducts, vessels of the body; others, however, viewed the forms as vegetive: bulbs and tubers, stalks and flowers. The three contrasting background bands of color both counterpoint against the linework ensembles which seem to float in the foreground, and unify the entire composition. The uppermost band consists of randomly distributed 'starbursts' which vary within a consistent range. The patterning here strongly suggests a somehow familiar and organic design, but leaves ambiguities for the viewer to consider: whether floral allusion, or surgical cross-section, Piotrowski's intuition and curiosity strikes an aesthetic gratification. (Several people at the opening, notwithstanding the painting's title, thought of food.) Piotrowski takes delight in such associations; and, indeed, such responses confirm that the paintings 'work': they are active, engaging, even provocative images.
I gave long thought as to just why Piotrowski's paintings make such a strong impression... And, well... Buckminster Fuller once said that nature does not use Pi to construct a bubble. We are, as Gould said, "pattern-seeking animals." We insert the patterns and geometries into our seeing -- we supply the abstracts. Anyone who has done biology class dissection knows life is not the hobby shop model: it is variable, unrestrainable; and endowed with a strange, life-born, and perplexing beauty and ingenuity. What saves Kim Piotrowski's art from lapsing into just decorative pattern and motif, 'decor,' are the very 'wake-up call' references. As humans, we respond to the patterns because we evolved -- survived -- in conceptualizing them -- D'Arcy Thompson's 'forms.' But reality consists of bubbles, grapes and pancreas, mushrooms and livers, trees and arteries, cobwebs and neural nets. Cezanne and Mondrian, in their most abstract beauty, touched upon real nerves. Without knowing whether gallbladder or garlic, a viewer picks up a common pattern and follows it out. A clue, and thus a speculative resolution adds further interest. For ages, men have fashioned nature into embellishment; only recently have we divorced our seeing and making from natural source: here the artist brings us back to reality, and to a newer twist at that.
Harvest (60"x60"), an acrylic on linen, displays an aspect common to Piotrowski's approach in these paintings. The image is conspicuously two-dimensional -- planar; but the eye perceives the tight linework elements as foreground; the larger, softer color contours as further away. Linework ensembles seem to float in undefined dimensions... much like organs, or, for that matter, dream images. The visual environments thus created operate on structure and contrast. In Harvest, the background of cream and steel-blue fashions an abstract, Platonic archetype of form worthy of Matisse's cutouts. There is further visual interest as one notices that where some back contours intersect, the overlap generates an arresting vermilion... but not always. In the upper left, the vermilion underscores an edge, while at lower left it appears eclipsed by the cream-colored field. The elements of linework at upper left, brought to the fore by their clear, contrasting definition, do again recall the bodies in torsion of a Kurt Seligmann, but the linkage of all components in the central, oblique axis to a lower left colon-like anchor point creates a tense ballet above the relaxed ground. As in many Piotrowski paintings, there is a dance of structure, an implied growth; and a contrast of forms in suspension, fore against aft, worthy of a Kandinsky at surgery.
Piotrowski's palette in these works does seem festive, celebratory. The artist has mentioned that she finds a delight in juxtaposing turquoise, or flat blue against a fleshy hue. The paintings exploit light, almost 'decorator colors,' which further enhances the Platonic sense of shapes and forms apart from a natural world. Her palette mitigates what might, in other hands, otherwise seem mordant or qualities which would distract toward an alienating literalism. In Seafoam, Morning Mist and Apricot Delight (36"x36"), the title itself suggests alternates and analogs to the generative content. The 'Apricot Delight' would seem to be the rightmost of three color masses which occupy the right half of the image, masses which evoke colons, balloons, even sagging breasts. Underlying principles of structure follow their own character, with only modest compromise with the material of their expression. A filled membrane maintains an identity, and in Seafoam, Morning Mist and Apricot Delight that identity hangs in discrete contrast to the identifiable vertebrae midway at image left.
If a celebratory spirit infuses Kimberly Piotrowski's recent paintings, New Love (60"x60") seems its most direct spokesman. In New Love, the linework ensembles -- organs -- do indeed array themselves as a festoon. A first impression is one of architectural figuration rendered with an unmodified, almost psychedelic color scheme. Upon first viewing this piece, the thesis of Pythagoras came to mind -- that things are themselves not because of what they are composed, but by virtue of their structure -- Universal Types. In New Love, form formulates substance. Do the line elements hang, float, or are they descending? New Love conveys form building out to greater form -- growth -- and that may well suit the essence of love far more freely, and truly, than earlier, more restrictive understandings. New Love is a pleasure, in itself and visually. Lake Effect (60"x60") recalls Salvador Dali and the New Image movement of the 70s. and none of the above. It is difficult to articulate, but the discrete compositional elements evoke the sort of offerings which over time have been deposited on Chicago shorelines: tied sack, suspicious shapes and shrouded human forms. At the opening, one viewer queried as to how, specifically, he should think of particular elements, as if there were a test with 'right and wrong answers.' The artist's answer may well be to just regard the realities as given: what, in structure and growth, do disparate phenomena have in common? Wassily Kandinsky's late Parisian period evolved through Biomorphism toward an "organic absolute," the artist's own search for "the micro- and macrocosmic coherence." Met with similar questions, Kandinsky expected viewers to open out to a painting's effect, to let it "make effective contact with the soul." Substance and form collaborate. This is not so far-fetched -- Chaos theory began with meteorological models, and now describes much of heart pulse and action, as well as the formation of snowflakes. It is the pattern and process that inform our senses. Pattern and process form the drive to art. Hearts, in men and material systems, share a kinship of both.
Kimberly Piotrowski's recent paintings are a visual pleasure, but moreover, they are participatory -- they draw their viewer into a dialogue of awareness, awareness of form, biological and abstract; and they imply much that we as humans merely categorize and dismiss with casual acceptance. "Humans are pattern-seeking animals." It was the force of that awareness, curiosity and investigation, which made us human. Kim Piotrowski absorbs the patterns and forms of biological processes; organic images, faunal and floral; and recomposes them into an analytically abstracted art, part surreal and part whimsically mannerist. "Kim Piotrowski: Recent Paintings," an exhibition of six new works, is on display through July 8, 2000 in the Project Room of the Fassbender Gallery, 835 West Washington, Chicago. It is well worth a visit.
--G. Jurek Polanski
Editor's Note: Many of the books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews are in print and may be ordered through this site's Barnes and Noble link. Stephen Jay Gould is quoted from "The Panda's Thumb..." in Bully for Brontosaurus (W.W.Norton: 1991); and D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson's On Growth and Form (Cambridge: 1969) has been reprinted. France Borel in her somewhat discursive and individual The Seduction of Venus: Artists and Models (Skira/Rizzoli: 1990) devotes three chapters to artists' 'anatomical passion.' Wassily Kandinsky's Concerning The Spiritual in Art (Dover:1977) is also available.
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