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The Old-School Bus

Two new exhibitions take their inspiration from the past

A vintage feeling has descended upon two Colquitt galleries. "Nexus" at Moody Gallery presents the works of 40-year-old Michael Kennaugh, who renders modernist-inspired forms on canvases with yellowed and aged patinas. And "Tony Magar: Paintings" at New Gallery features the septuagenarian artist's vividly hued, contemporary take on abstract expressionism.

Knowing when to stop is a big part of creating a successful painting. Michael Kennaugh has pretty much figured that out in his new show. In these paintings, raw canvas and pencil marks for unrealized forms are visible, yet the works feel complete. Kennaugh has always made respectable paintings, but this group is the best I've seen and the first that made me really covetous.

Kennaugh sizes his canvas with rabbit-skin glue, which is a really old-school thing to do. It colors the exposed material in a pleasant, mellow way that makes it seem aged. Kennaugh's linear elements and geometric forms are drawn, more than painted, on the canvas. The elements are directly and matter-of-factly brushed on -- they feel like the first stages of an aspiring modernist Meisterstück.

Kennaugh's Lexington is loaded with visual references to another time.
Moody Gallery
Kennaugh's Lexington is loaded with visual references to another time.

In Lexington (2004), triangles and lines radiate out from a central swirl. The ungessoed, yellowed canvas has a significant presence in itself. Kennaugh uses slightly timeworn shades like pale blue and art-deco orange. A lemon-yellow triangle feels just a little bit grubby, and a blue-black swirl seems a trifle faded, stopping short in mid-curve, as if its maker planned to get back to it eventually.

The paintings look like unfinished studies unearthed from the studio of some dead, slightly provincial, early European modernist. I'm not being snarky -- in Kennaugh's works this is not a bad thing, but a good and interesting one. His compositions and colors grab you, but they're also loaded with visual references that allude to work made in a different time and place.

Equine (2003-2004) has a pick-up-sticks collection of parallel and angled linear elements. You get a faint whiff of constructivism from the painting's forms, contradicted by their circa-1940s designer colors: chartreuse, robin's-egg blue, ocher and brown.

The occasional messiness of the paintings works to Kennaugh's advantage -- it adds to the imagined history of the work. In Pegasus (2003-2004), a pale blue drip runs down a dark blue-black section, which suggests that its maker got careless and then put it away rather than finishing the work. It's weird, but looking at these paintings, you imagine narratives around their making -- they could be props from a '50s Technicolor film, supposedly done by a Hollywood version of a "modern artist." The addition of a particularly dated shade of avocado-green just enhances the vintage feel. The only problem lies in the upper portion of the painting -- a brushy, mottled field that moves from brown to navy, with light blue scrubbed into the right corner. This muddied, overworked section feels out of place, striking an off note in an otherwise well-orchestrated painting.

Kennaugh's work employs an abstract, modernist vernacular with a skillful yet slightly removed approach. It could almost be the product of a forger faking "undiscovered work" by some yet-to-be-named early-20th-century artist. Whatever's going on in his head when he's making them, Kennaugh is producing some intriguing and extremely visually satisfying paintings.


Over at New Gallery, you don't get the sense that Tony Magar is quoting anything. Rather, he has energetically embraced a point of view from 50-odd years ago and used it as his point of departure. There isn't a smidgen of raw canvas to be seen in these hard-won, bushy grounds, whose rough surfaces reveal the layers of paint within.

Magar is a painter who always does a competent, if sometimes unexciting, job. But here his strong unapologetic colors feel especially fresh and dynamic. A case in point: Taos Fire (2004), whose almost kelly-green background hosts smears of cadmium red-orange, swatches of yellow ocher and a patch of black overlaid by dry white scribbles.

Blue Train (2004) and Muse of Fire (2003) have bold, Franz Kline-like strokes. In Blue, an angled, horizontal black stroke intersects with an emphatic downward one. A drippy, runny layer of chalky blue looks like something rained on it, barely revealing the rain slicker-yellow underpainting. The surface of Muse is more scrubbed, the intense yellow-orange revealing nubs of canvas with intense green underpainting. A reddish-orange is brushed across the top with a downward stroke that is maybe just a little too central.

Titles like Muse of Fire are kinda old-fashioned, but Magar is in his seventies and old enough to have shown with de Kooning and Kline at Martha Jackson Gallery in 1958. He hasn't been making ab-ex-inspired stuff this whole time -- his early work had much more in common with that of sculptor Mark Di Suvero, with whom he founded Park Place Gallery.

Speaking of titles, Odysseus, Part II (2003) is a little Cy Twombly-esque, but Lord knows that Grecophile doesn't own the rights to classical references. And the painting itself recalls Twombly, but with stronger lines. A pale, Naples-yellow background hosts glacially sketchy lines in bluish-gray, shot with occasional vivid orange marks. It's more subdued than the other works, but it's extremely pleasant. Magar's least successful paintings in the show are a grayed-down, muddied threesome in the second gallery. He works best keeping his colors clean -- not squeaky-clean, but with just enough intermingling to make them interesting.

Magar has rediscovered a way of painting that had its genesis in his youth. He's running through the ab-ex bag of tricks, but he manages to do it with conviction. Meanwhile, Kennaugh is conducting a kind of modernist séance, making strong paintings that bow their heads to their vintage influences.

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