Draw­ing par­al­lels

ARTIST JEFF KAHM EFF KAHM’S NEW PAINT­INGS AT CHIAROSCURO

Pasatiempo - - CONTENT - Paul Wei­de­man The New Mex­i­can

The par­al­lel lines and tri­an­gles that pop­u­late Jeff Kahm’s graph­i­cally clear, ele­men­tal paint­ings may ref­er­ence land­scape to­pogra­phies in Saskatchewan, where he grew up; the dec­o­rated gar­ments of the Plains Cree, of which he is a mem­ber; and the in­ven­tions of the mid-cen­tury ab­strac­tion­ists. His artis­tic con­cer­tos are the re­sults of ded­i­cated ex­per­i­men­ta­tion — and when he comes up with a pat­tern he likes, he rev­els in re­peat­ing it, with ad­just­ments only to the pal­ette. An ex­hi­bi­tion of new paint­ings opens on Fri­day, June 3, at Chiaroscuro Con­tem­po­rary Art. On the cover is Kahm’s acrylic on can­vas, Emerge (2016).

Con­tem­po­rary Art are sim­ple but sub­tly en­er­getic — bold ab­strac­tions in lines, bands, rec­tan­gles, and tri­an­gles. In one se­ries of acrylic-on-can­vas paint­ings, 22 inches tall and 20 inches wide, he ex­plores one de­sign us­ing dif­fer­ent colors for each paint­ing. Ev­ery work is com­posed of an ar­range­ment of four tri­an­gles and a trape­zoid, and per­haps the dom­i­nant im­age is of a tri­col­ored isosce­les tri­an­gle pointed down­ward and with a dif­fer­ent-col­ored back­ground on ei­ther side. In fact, if turned up­side down, the de­sign looks like a te­pee with a flap opened.

That is a strong im­age from the artist’s re­al­ity. Of Plains Cree her­itage, Kahm was born in Ed­mon­ton, Al­berta, Canada, and grew up on an In­dian reser­va­tion in Saskatchewan. But his feel­ing about the “V” pat­tern re­peated in these paint­ings is def­i­nite and non­ref­er­en­tial: “There’s some­thing about the visual weight I like. It feels more com­plete.”

His de­signs re­late to per­cep­tions and mem­o­ries of land­scape, tra­di­tional Na­tive arts, and the at­ti­tude of mod­ernist ex­per­i­men­tal­ism that at­tracted him when he was an un­der­grad­u­ate in the early 1990s. “I’m com­ing from a lot of ge­o­met­ri­cal ab­strac­tion, looking at Color Field paint­ings, the New York School, looking at ev­ery­one from Ken­neth Noland to Frank Stella and also his­toric Plains Na­tive art, in­clud­ing parfleche [car­ry­ing cases made from painted hides] de­signs, and also aerial views of land­scapes. You see this in Saskatchewan, where there are crop fields and lines of cul­ti­va­tion. You see this also in quill­work (Na­tive Amer­i­can por­cu­pinequill em­broi­dery) from the Plains tribes. The Cree did a lot of quill­work. I love looking at it.”

Kahm be­gan work­ing in ab­strac­tion when he was an un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dent at Kansas City Art In­sti­tute. “Be­fore that, I did rep­re­sen­ta­tional work — land­scapes and por­traits — like ev­ery­body else. I did my first paint­ing when I was about thir­teen, and I was draw­ing when I was nine years old. I was draw­ing things I saw in mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers and things I knew — the Na­tive peo­ple and pow­wow dancers and te­pees.”

He first came to Santa Fe in 1990 to study paint­ing and photography at the In­sti­tute of Amer­i­can In­dian Arts. Af­ter get­ting an art de­gree from the Kansas City school, he went on to earn his MFA in paint­ing at the Univer­sity of Al­berta. In 2002, he re­turned to New Mex­ico. He has made strides in paint­ing but has not been able to pur­sue photography. “I could do other things, but there’s just not enough time,” Kahm said. “I’m not a full-time artist. I’m a full-time in­struc­tor. I’ve taught at IAIA off and on since 2005, and I’ve been full-time teach­ing stu­dio art at IAIA since 2009.” He has been one of the sta­ble of artists at Chiaroscuro Con­tem­po­rary Art since March. His long­time rep­re­sen­ta­tion has been with Madi­son Gallery in La Jolla, Cal­i­for­nia, and Wil­liam Havu Gallery in Den­ver.

In con­ver­sa­tion at his stu­dio on Santa Fe’s south side, Kahm pulled out a va­ri­ety of work­ing drawings, ev­i­dence of his ex­per­i­ments and ex­plo­rations. One se­ries of small col­ored-pen­cil drawings fea­tur­ing vari­a­tions on an hour­glass shape go back to about 2000, when he was still liv­ing in Saskatchewan.

“Some­times these ideas will be de­vel­oped, and other times they just get laid aside and for­got­ten, but I like get­ting them out and looking at the ideas. I’m do­ing a lot of stud­ies in Pho­to­shop, too. You’re just see­ing what the pos­si­bil­i­ties are for more se­ri­ous, large pieces.” Some of the stud­ies are three-di­men­sional mini-works as­sem­bled from sep­a­rately cut and painted foam-core shapes. A few in this vein were made as ac­tual paint­ings — stretched can­vas on thick panels, the el­e­ments bolted — in­stead of glued — to­gether, as in the sketch works. These small paint­ings can bring to mind ma­chines or per­haps Trans­form­ers toys. “Some of it can sug­gest con­tem­po­rary ar­chi­tec­ture and struc­ture. I en­joyed that, at one time,” he said.

The new ex­hi­bi­tion’s other se­ries is sim­i­lar in the vari­a­tions-on-a-theme as­pect. These paint­ings are also ver­ti­cally ori­ented, this time 70 inches tall and 60 inches wide, but the pat­tern is even sim­pler: 10 ver­ti­cal and par­al­lel bands of equal width and of var­i­ous hues, but never the same color on two ad­ja­cent bands.

The works in Kahm’s just-pre­vi­ous se­ries are also very large (90 inches by 90 inches) and also fea­ture de­signs of lines and bands, with the tri­an­gle a com­mon mo­tif, but in this case, he ex­plored vari­a­tions of sur­face: The marks range from very finely tex­tured up to an al­most im­pasto ef­fect. Also, there is a dis­tinct im­pres­sion of folded planes and lay­er­ing. In one sense, the new par­al­lel-line paint­ings in Chiaroscuro’s show rep­re­sent a fur­ther ab­stracted sense of these lay­ered sur­faces.

The newer work is el­e­gant and un­der­stated but still car­ries with it a strong pres­ence. “Stripes as geo­met­ric struc­tures are the most rec­og­niz­able of all pat­terns and have been used through­out the cen­turies,” he says in his artist state­ment. The sense of over­lap­ping we may ex­pe­ri­ence in his small paint­ings in the show, Valor and Tenac­ity, is real, a de­lib­er­ate ar­ti­fact of his process. “The larger col­ored shapes are painted first, then the suc­ces­sive bands are made af­ter mask­ing. I’m ba­si­cally mask­ing and us­ing a roller and a lot of gel.”

The tex­ture on the par­al­lel-band paint­ings is ex­ceed­ingly smooth — al­most liq­uid-looking — and this is a re­sult of the fact that, for these, he ap­plies his pig­mented gels with a steel trowel. “As I’m drag­ging the paint, I’m kind of ag­i­tat­ing it a lit­tle bit, giving it a lit­tle bit of his­tory un­der­neath. These are sev­eral lay­ers, very thin ve­neers, of mostly gel and some color. It’s very trans­par­ent gel, and I’m re­mask­ing a lot, do­ing very thin lay­ers, and over time it sug­gests some depth.”

Asked about his pal­ette, he said, “I don’t do a lot of color. I do vari­a­tions of cer­tain colors that I en­joy, but I do avoid cer­tain colors. I don’t use a lot of pur­ple. And I avoid cer­tain com­bi­na­tions, like red-green for Christ­mas and black-orange for Hal­loween.”

Kahm makes his own frames. First he stretches can­vas on frames faced with birch ply­wood. This hard, smooth sur­face is nec­es­sary when he’s trow­el­ing the thin lay­ers of gel. Once the paint­ing is dry, he will re­move it and in­stall it on a reg­u­lar stretcher. “I’ve been do­ing this since art school. I don’t like to buy stretch­ers. I’d rather de­ter­mine all the scales. I take full own­er­ship of this when I’m build­ing them. It’s kind of tricky, but this is fun to do. I think it’s re­ally im­por­tant to re­ally en­joy what you do.”

Tenac­ity, 2016, acrylic on can­vas

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