Life Lines

Even for those of us who enjoy looking at art, painting and drawing can seem like strange activities. Covering a blank surface with marks and colors, lines and blotches, whether attempting to represent objects in the world or shapes from one's imagination, is an odd way to spend time. Yet humans have been doing it since a couple of Cro-Magnon Courbets decided that the cave walls at Lascaux and Altamira needed improving. What is this compulsion? A fear of the void as represented by a blank surface? A primeval urge to assert one's existence in this vast cosmos? The pictorial equivalent of Whitman's "barbaric yawp"?

Naah. It's much simpler -- and more complex -- than that.

Artists make art because they can no more not make art than not breathe. It's really less a career than a calling (or an obsession, if we're not being nice). Art is the prism through which artists comprehend the world. It's both an intuitive engagement with life and a reflexive refuge from it, both involvement and detachment.

With that in mind, the title of Michael Kennaugh's show at Moody Gallery is even more evocative. "Haven" has an intimate feel, thanks in part to the homey space of the gallery and also to the smaller scale and greater use of color in these paintings than in his previous works.

The haven is perhaps from life on the road. Kennaugh has to do a lot of traveling, and so does his notebook. Where some of us might keep a travel journal or take snapshots, he draws. Not that the notebook contains a record of his travels (at least, not a record we would recognize), but his drawings can't help but be informed by his surroundings. Unlike a photograph, which is essentially an act of appropriation, drawing is a mediation between the objective world of planes, surfaces and dimensions and the subjective realm of the artist's perception. When Kennaugh can get back to his studio, the notebooks become source material for his paintings.

The first thing you notice in these paintings and works on paper is the dominance of line. They are spare paintings, with large areas of canvas forming a counterpoint of negative space to the painted lines and (relatively few) fields. The unpainted canvas looks raw, but it's not; the artist has sealed it with rabbit-skin glue, which gives the canvas a kind of patina, making it appear aged. Some of the works on paper are obviously studies for the paintings, but in most instances the paintings are sparer, more dedicated to the line. Take, for example, the painting Luna. A dark green triangular shape in the bottom half of the study for Luna morphs into a broken graphite circle in the painting, cleft by a narrow graphite-outlined band. It's negative space bisected by negative space, a compositional element that, for all its emptiness, somehow reads more sculpturally than the triangle in the study does.

The emphasis on line imparts to all these works an engaging liveliness, an energy that is continued in Kennaugh's play with color. These lines keep changing personality as they make their way around their canvases. In the sparest painting, Trine, a loopy, ovoid shape is reddish-brown for two-thirds of its run around the lower half of the canvas but suddenly becomes green as it completes its course. One greenish-brown line in Luna takes a hilarious journey, almost crossing the entire width of the painting, right to left, before shooting upward at a 90 degree angle back across the surface as reddish-brown (with a sea-green overlay for about half the trip). At its apex, it curves down into a slate-blue loop only to cross the brown line and mutate into a dark yellow line that describes a triangle before ducking under the blue line and running off into bare space. It's an exhilarating bit of lunacy, a roller coaster for your eyes.

This sense of play is also evident in the traces of activity that the artist has left visible: shadows of erased graphite figures, slight stains and smudges where paint has been wiped away, a few brush hairs in the rabbit-skin sizing. Unlike a number of contemporary abstract painters who work hard to suppress signs of the artist's hand, Kennaugh's works insist on that presence. He wants his paintings to say "Artist At Work," not as a display of Romantic ego, but as a communicative act. Kennaugh wants to share his involvement with his materials, with his subject matter, drawn from that world he leaves behind when he enters the haven of his studio to engage in this artistic play.

In lieu of an artist's statement, Kennaugh offers several quotations as support material to this exhibit, including a phrase from Paul Klee: "Tremendous fragments of meaning." That's as good a description of an artwork as I've heard. But the meaning is in the practice as much as it is in the product. Art has always been the result of the serious play of the imagination. Historian Johan Huizinga observed that play "creates order, is order. Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a temporary, limited perfection." This is what those who enjoy looking at art are looking for: some limited, temporary perfection arising from the consideration of the serious play of the artist's imagination. And Michael Kennaugh, in the richly spare works of "Haven," more than meets us halfway.

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John Devine