The nature of seeing

Each of the artists in Paint Creek's I Paint What I See could easily sustain large solo exhibitions, so one wonders about the reason for this seemingly disparate grouping. As it turns out, exhibition director and curator Mary Fortuna wanted to show Tom Humes' new, breakthrough paintings, and it was through discussions with Humes about artists that he admires that this constellation of talent emerged. Along with Humes are Kathy Rashid, Elizabeth Crank and Rick Vian. All four are standard-bearers of the Detroit art scene. It's a quietly stunning exhibition with a powerful symbiotic undercurrent.

The title of this show is the clue. Each artist is obsessed with the simplest act of painting — the seeing part, the part that distinguishes it from all other art. It's the philosophical part of painting, the I-Thou of the art, the subject-object relationship of the painter to the painted.

Rick Vian, to begin with, has been painting the same thing for years. He's wrestled with the representation of Northern trees — and their collective identity, the Northern forest — for years. From landscape paintings of the most sedate, distant promontory of graceful pine trees to forest interiors of the rawest, most jagged-edged, geometric abstraction, Vian has carried on a romance with trees.

Vian's current work, while not leaving the forest for a moment, expresses an exhilarating emancipation. Still architecturally jagged and bony like the skaggy Northwood model that inspires them, these new abstract paintings are loose and comfortable with themselves. This new assurance is rendered in a palette that references the landscape and seasons without being burdened by loyalty to representation. They are paintings, not pictures.

"October Divided" honors the palette of the season with the luminescent autumn reds of maples and the golden yellows of birch and poplar, illuminated by a soft, low, autumnal light seeping through and illuminating the painting. Vian's painting is both graphically and tonally emotional. Suggesting the stark light and monochromatic light of winter, "Snowfield" is an emotionally existential painting, while the brilliant scarlet swirls of "Flies on Frank" are a celebration of movement and light.

Elizabeth Crank is equally obsessed with the activity of seeing. Her collection of eight small portraits of pairs of shoes amusingly creates a cast of characters in a play-noir of shadow and light, color and form. With titles like "The Player," "The Indian" and "Maestro," Crank focuses on the semiotics of well-worn shoes, the language of what you wear, seamlessly rendering them in a delicately balanced palette of moody light. As shoe portraits, they contradict their earthly function by seeming to float in a tincture of air and shaded light. As metaphors, they have us at the brink of a magical realism.

Equally inventive are the paintings of Kathy Rashid, who puts a spin on the act of anatomical drawing. Her obsessive observation and painting of what she calls the "phenomenal world" of nature, like Crank's, lead to another order of perception. Her five new paintings reveal a classic empirical mind, quixotically examining the evidence of the world and translating it into forms mediated by painting. Her turtle and nautilus shell paintings are both inclined toward the iconic, toward making the paintings into mandala-like images. "Shell, Karamea, Inside," a gorgeous jewel of a painting, reveals the inner world of the shell with its architectural vortex spinning toward a deep interior. Her "Cicada, In Hand," a large, startlingly beautiful work, is a perfect recognition of the philosophical analysis of self and other, of the artist's hand embracing what it sees. The soft, folded, sexy pink flesh of the hand holds at its center the fiendishly monarchial cicada, the noisy bug of our late summer days.

For years, Tom Humes has used the self-portrait in a classic sense, simply by using his own head as a model. This representation is a fixture upon which turns his philosophical drama. In the new work, self-portraits with an austere, perhaps tortured monk-like head are set among a minimum of symbolic images. The metaphorical triangulation of these images and self-portraits produces sketchy narratives or perhaps biblical-like parables. In "Cradle," three "self-portraits" are interlocked with a couple of images that serve as clues for interpretation. Each of the likenesses in the painting can be read on various levels, from realistic to caricature, from agonized to ecstatic, from infant to aged. Humes has taken his Renaissance-inspired painting and framing techniques to a new level and they support, more than ever, the kind of symbolic readings that we apply to Flemish and Italian Renaissance painting. In the background there appears to be a commode-like pot with an inset of a rubber duck on a cloud, figures suggesting birth and death. In "Comundo," the multi-paneled centerpiece of perhaps the whole exhibition, Humes has painted representations of a figure engaged in a sequence of actions, reading a book (mimicking Antonello da Messina's 1475 painting "St. Jerome in his Study"), two figures studying a sphere (contemplating physics), rendering an archetypal narrative for the human being.

Within each work in I Paint What I See there are, whether conscious or not, meditations on the perception of nature, what Immanuel Kant called the "spatiotemporal domain." This question emerges: In the act of painting, does one see a route from the phenomenal to "true knowledge" or ultimate reality? This is a seriously engaged, and happily lighthearted, exhibition on many levels. None of the artists strike me as particularly New Agey and, thankfully, there is no evidence of a "leap to faith" from the phenomenal world. There is evidence, however, of a sincere commitment to looking.


A closing reception for I Paint What I See is 6-8 p.m., Friday, Sept. 21, with a gallery talk at 2 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 22. Show runs through Sept. 22, at Paint Creek Center for the Arts, 407 Pine St., Rochester; 248-651-4110.

Glen Mannisto writes about art for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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