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Frances Kuehn: New Paintings

May 1, 2002
Judith Stein

A writer and curator, studied at Barnard College, and has a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Eye of the Sixties, Richard Bellamy and the Transformation of Modern Art, (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016). Her curatorial projects include Red Grooms, A Retrospective, for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and The Figurative Fifties, New York School Figurative Expressionism, co-curated with Paul Schimmel. Her exhibition, I Tell My Heart: The Art of Horace Pippin, traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1995, and earned a best catalogue award from AICA/USA. Her articles, interviews and reviews have appeared in Art in America, Art News, and The New York Times Book Review, as well as on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air and Morning Edition. Among her honors is a Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant; a Pew Fellowship for literary non-fiction; and a Lannan Foundation writing residency in Marfa, Texas.

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"Rooted in the specifics of her own life, Kuehn’s new paintings address universal themes that touch all human experience."

William Paterson University
Ben Shahn Galleries
Up until relatively recent times, artists who based their paintings on photographs rarely disclosed this information. For example, we have only just learned that the American master, Thomas Eakins, made extensive use of his own snapshots in his painted compositions. In the early 1970s, the emergence of the term photorealism acknowledged the growing artistic practice of using the photographic fact as a compositional starting point. Frances Kuehn was an early and skilled practitioner of this method of working. She participated in both the final “Whitney Museum Painting Annual” in 1972, and the first Biennial there in the following year. In this new body of work, Kuehn demonstrates that there are still ample treasures to be mined from the photorealist vein.
The points of departure for Kuehn’s new canvases are photographs of staged scenarios enacted by herself and by her husband, the mathematician Ray Hoobler. Interested in sharp resolution in her patented images, she prints a whole range of exposures in order to harvest the desired visual details. In envisioning the curious format of Personal and XY, in which she presents figures under wraps, Kuehn challenged herself to convey identity without revealing specific physiognomy. She recalled the example of Yayoi Kusama, who applied leaves to her own and others’ bodies to obliterate the images. In Personal, she humorously shrouded herself with a dust cloth, as if she were an upholstered chair in an infrequently used living room. It’s the shoes that cue us that the ghostly model is not genderless. Kuehn’s playful depiction takes its place alongside such predecessors as Raphael Peale’s coy After the Bath, Magritte’s head-swaddled Lovers, and Wendell Castle’s trompe l’oeil tour de force, Ghost Clock.
In the companion piece XY, the obscuring drop cloth has a graph paper-like grid pattern, a covert reference to Hoobler’s vocation. She hides all personal information except the bottom of his trouser legs, his socks and shoes. The two paintings attest to Kuehn’s interest in using a two dimensional drape to define a three-dimensional form. The painting’s title XY is of course, the male chromosomal signature, and also alludes to Cartesian coordinates, the mathematical technique of pinpointing a position by referencing its distance from a central point. Math also provides the underpinnings for Covering Triangles, in which a kneeling figure is engrossed in laying a lawn. The odd, triangularly shaped pieces of sod allude to the visualization of abstract space in non-Euclidean geometry.
Frances Kuehn loves language almost as much as she loves the visual world. In several recent paintings she turns a fresh eye to the embodiment of well-worn phrases. In Thataway, we see the artist out on a limb, dressed in a chambray shirt the color of the sky, and a pair of earth-toned pants. Like the artist, we cannot see the distance to the ground nor the full height of the tree. As an exercise in painting, the canvas is as emergetoc as one by Jackson Pollock, with layer upon activated layer of patterned shadows. In Tabula Rasa, whose title implies both fresh start and literaly means scraped tablet, we see Kuehn and Hoobler at the start of their day. Wearing a yellow striped robe the color of a foolscap pad, he reads the daily paper. Her meal concluded, she literally and figuratively clears the lower section of a geometric painting that gives balance and weight to the composition. Kuehn found the configuration in one of Hoobles’s geometry books, offering in another subtle reference to his passion for mathematics. As did A.S. Byatt in her novel Possession, the artist had to envision and create a work of art within a work of art, using an uncharacteristic style of expression.
In Intrusion, Kuehn permits us to trespass into her work space as she maneuvers a vacuum hose, so absorbed in her housekeeping that she is unaware of our proximity. We immediately chuckle when we realize that we can see what she can not — an open door through which spills a mountain of soil and rubble. Woman’s work is never done, we tisk. Nor is the artist’s for that matter. Dressed in a pink shirt and blue jeans, she focuses on the task at hand, oblivious of the futility of her efforts. She can never eliminate the worldly intrusions that sully and influence the creative environment. The painting deepens in meaning when we learn that Kuehn painted Intrusion in the wake of the devastations of September 11. Rooted in the specifics of her own life, Kuehn’s new paintings address universal themes that touch all human experience.
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