The Raw and the Cooked


Though it is often said that it is the journey that matters and not the destination, this can be a difficult argument when addressed to the viewer of art. Left only with the fruits of the journey's end to contemplate, the path taken can seem superfluous and, as is often the case with excruciatingly boring art, little more than an excuse. Indeed, art has this in common with comedy: If you have to explain it…

Yet, when confronted with complex works of striking beauty, I admit that I do often wish to know more - how was this made and what was the artist thinking?

The reason I bring this up is that there were two shows that totally knocked me out this season - one by Roland Flexner at Caren Golden Fine Art and the other by Shirley Kaneda at Feigen Contemporary - and how the works were made becomes significant in attempting to ascertain what the artists might have been thinking. As you can see from the illustrations, both works bear obvious similarities, almost to the point that a cursory examination might lead one to assume that they are by the same artist, the only difference between them being the addition of hot colors to one and not the other.

They are by different artists, but even after one becomes aware of that it is easy to compile a long list of their commonalities: a work on paper whose size promotes an intimate relationship with the viewer; a sensuous liquid quality; a playful ambiguity between micro and macro scale; a nearly Greenbergian adherence to the dictates of the two-dimensional surface; a strong use of negative space and, with that, crystal clear composition. Superficially, at least, the affinities are numerous.

Closer inspection, while reinforcing many of the shared characteristics, begins to reveal important differences as well. While both drawings appear fluid, the black and white Flexner is, or at least appears to be, more natural. One suspects that Flexner's process in some way harnesses the physical act of creation in a fairly direct manner. The same does not hold true for Kaneda's work. Although its abstract image is naturalistic, its slightly photographic shimmer - on a certain level it approximates the look of reflective Mylar - and the fact that it is a watercolor, would seem to belie a straight forward approach in its creation. So, if the Flexner appears to be a record of an action, the Kaneda appears, while abstract, to be in some way depictive or representational.

At this point it seems likely that each artist used a different process to create their work. But in light of their obvious similarities, one might still give pause upon learning that, in nearly every way, their working methods stand at polar opposites. Kaneda's watercolor involves a multi-layered system in its creation; Flexner's ink on paper is the result of a single action. Kaneda's piece, as did all of the works from this series, took between 9 and 16 hours to make; Flexner's between 4 and 5 seconds. Kaneda's involves drawing, brushes, watercolors, a scanner, a computer, Photoshop software, and a high quality printer (and then more brushes and watercolor); Flexner's involve soap, ink, and a brush attached to a hollow tube.

Kaneda, who considers this work both a possible study for a larger painting and a complete piece in itself, starts by making a preparatory watercolor. This first stage watercolor is then placed on a scanner and a digital image is created for manipulation in Photoshop. After much play, where both the lines and colors are massaged and cajoled, watercolor paper is placed in the printer, and a black and white only print is produced. The image on the computer screen now becomes the color study, while the print out becomes the preparatory drawing for the finished watercolor. Hour built upon hour, yet the resulting artwork shows little sign of its labor intense birth - instead cloaking its generation in a faux naturalism that feels light, unmannered and, despite its acidic palate, almost harmonious.

Totally circumscribed as it is by its process, Flexner's work is nearly impossible to think of as anything other than a finished work in itself (although, having said that, anyone who knows what Flexner is technically capable of would not be completely shocked to walk into a gallery and see an eight foot version some day). Mixing ink or another black pigment with a medium comprised mostly of soap and water, Flexner places a small amount of the resulting solution on the end of a hollow brush. Standing over the piece of paper, Flexner then expands the black fluid to the desired size, waits for the ebb and flow of the mixture to achieve just the right parameters, and lays it down in a single gesture. In other words, and in the space of 5 seconds, he blows a bubble and pops it on the paper.

Now looking at their actions, Kaneda and Flexner appear to have little in common. The art work seems to point to shared concerns, while their processes seem to counter that assumption. So, what gives? Do the artworks bear false witness of intent, or is it that the productive action of the artists is, while interesting, in actuality irrelevant?

If one trusts the visual as being indicative of the larger meaning, as I usually do, then one also has to trust that Flexner and Kaneda do pursue shared concerns. If this would seem to dismiss the process as unimportant, perhaps the next step is to see if statements of commonality can be made about the process.

The first thing to note, obviously, is that each has pushed method to an extreme. Kaneda by adding layer upon layer of synthetic process until, one would expect, any chance for meaning, warmth, or naturalness would be totally, wrung from the drawing. Flexner by removing so much of the process usually associated with drawing, including- incredibly-even physically coming into contact with the paper, that anything resembling composition, gesture, or even touch could reasonably be assumed to be out of the question.

Then there's the element of time which, as with the processes, has been pushed to the outer ends of the spectrum. While spending, as Kaneda can, up to 16 hours on a drawing is certainly not unheard of, the medium of watercolor is usually practiced with the pursuit of immediacy in mind. Stretching the time out this way, in practical terms making the drawing a hyper-extended, multi-session affair, attenuates the thinking process associated with the drawing, layering in information even as the artist is constantly challenged to hold on to her thread of thought.

Conversely, having any thoughts at all, let alone contemplating line, density, and composition in the space of four seconds seems, on the face of it, highly unlikely if not impossible. Yet, somehow, Flexner does it. As with all of his drawings, the one above displays the artist's uncanny ability to control all of the qualities expected of a precision line drawing: a clean line, subtle manipulation of tone, and an articulate description of space. (For those who might doubt the artist's control, Flexner is happy to pull out nearly identical drawings he has created during a single session). Where Kaneda manages to hold on to the immediate in the face of hours of toil, Flexner manages to snatch a controlled result in the space of a breath.

Here, finally, we come to that which underlies both artists' work. That is, the true subject for each can be summed up (somewhat crudely in words, with such elegance in their drawings) as this: manipulating time - whether though hyper-extension or hyper-compression - can create a lens through which we can view the process of welding ideas and actions into a single armature, a single argument, a singular work of art.

Kaneda and Flexner may seek answers through processes at opposite poles, but the larger truth is that they both seek answers by exploring the polar extremes of process. In the end, it should come as no surprise that their works share so many visual affinities; given their shared visions of art's potential, it would be stranger if they did not.