New York CityAlmine Rech Gallery
Scott Kahn: The Walled City
May 3 – June 14, 2022
The first painting one sees upon entering Scott Kahn’s exhibition at Almine Rech is The Gate (2021–22), a view of a tree-lined residential driveway. Seen from an elevated perspective, presumably a house’s second-story window, the driveway leads from a nondescript road directly down the center of the picture plane. The wrought-iron gate that gives the work its title is conspicuously unfunctional: it’s puny, it juts askew into the driveway itself, and it’s not connected to any continuing barrier, so one could simply walk a few paces around it to cross its threshold.
One thinks instinctively of the similarly moronic fence that was recently scattered in bits and pieces along our southern border, but Kahn’s surrealism is not of the front-page, national-news variety. It’s more visual, more mystical. The details of this daubed-into-existence universe don’t add up. On the left side of the driveway, the lawn is copper orange, and the slender-trunked trees are teal blue. On the right, the lawn is a dry green and the trees are magenta pink.
The Gate is among the most recent of the fifteen works in oil collected in this exhibition, which were made over a four decade span, from 1982 to 2022. Similarly dreamlike oddities can be found in most of the paintings, some more obvious than others, but it would be wrong to call Kahn a Magritte of the American exurb and leave it at that.
Here, interest emerges not from Freud’s couch, nor from the unreal city of Eliot and de Chirico, but from the problems embedded in seeing, remembering, and representing. There’s an obsessiveness in Kahn’s handling of detail: he tries to paint every leaf on the tree, every blade of grass, every twig and branch. Bit by bit, everything is stared at, understood, and put down onto canvas. This leads to spatial stiffness and psychological flattening, but Kahn is no bumbling naïf. His tiny spots of divided colors are sensitively perceived, coalescing into evocative clumps and forms, repeating in tessellated patterns that are not quite mechanical, not quite organic.
The compositions are canny and peculiar. Clouds often play an outsized role in the pictures’ visual movement. Constable wrote that “[the] landscape painter who does not make his skies a very material part of his composition neglects to avail himself of one of his greatest aids,” and Kahn would seem to agree, though his frost-bound clouds call more to Piero than to the warm-blooded English Romanticist.
Indeed, Kahn’s is, in a sense, an anti-picturesque sensibility. Nature doesn’t play pretty foil to the built environment, but rather submits, somewhat pathetically, to its imposing geometries. Lawn mowers, hedge-trimmers, and weed-whackers are all unseen antiheroes. When nature does let loose, it menaces. In On the Path (1984), a naked boy hovers in a dark void at the center of the canvas, surrounded on all sides by a monotonous green vegetation that seems ready to swallow him whole. In You Get What You Need (1997), a seascape sky is engulfed in flames, floating about which are articles of a man’s wardrobe as well as several windows seen in various perspectives. It looks something like an apocalyptic rendition of Matisse’s Red Studio (1911)—less luxe et calme, more fire and brimstone.
The painting that gives the exhibition its name, The Walled City (1988), is itself titled after Theodore Dreiser’s moniker, in Sister Carrie, for an elitist and exclusive New York. Thus, Kahn shows us an outsider’s, or at least a bridge-and-tunneller’s, view of lower Manhattan from across the Hudson under a starlit, crescent-mooned night sky. There’s a twist, though. In the foreground is a vacant chair on a spot-lit stage set, flanked on the right by a green proscenium curtain, and on all other sides by an inexplicable curtain of fire.
These are affecting pictures, but Kahn is at his best when he drops the surrealist melodrama and confronts the world head-on, as it were. What’s ostensibly the most conventional image in the exhibition might also be its strangest: Kahn’s 1982 The Barn, presenting a shingled gray house with white trim and red doors at a reasonable distance. It’s a cold, windless, forbidding winter day; the branches of the surrounding trees are barren. The tract of lawn in the foreground, taking up the bottom half of the picture, is yellowed by the season.
In her famous essay “Against Interpretation” (1966), Susan Sontag writes of modernist French poets attempting “to put silence into poems and to reinstate the magic of the word.” Paintings like The Barn elude interpretation, not merely by their willful narrative ambiguity, but by a clarity of vision that approaches silence. In his quixotic insistence on cutting through the fog of feeling, Kahn finds unusual mystery.