A medium shot of a forest, with a hint of sky at the top, dense foliage on skinny trees, shrubbery surrounding their lower parts. But what’s this? The black-and-white image covers only the top two thirds of the page, while the lower third includes not only the continuing of the conspicuously-cut border, but also a yellow line around the lower portion, vivid color in an otherwise “colorless” landscape. And there are two closer trees with boles that are cut off by the bottom of the scene, but then are continued through the empty lower third by lines of the same bright yellow. This is Kiki Gaffney’s “Nexus Study 2,” and these unexpected lines seem to be calling our attention to the ordinary fact that the trees we live among continue far beyond what we see, that their lives, like the lives of people we encounter but don’t truly know, are a world of mystery we ignore at our peril.
There are sometimes said to be two kinds of people: the ones who believe there are two kinds of people, and the ones who don’t. The arts can be divided into similar pairs: representational vs. abstract, figure vs. landscape, 2-D vs. 3-D, and so on. The gulf Kiki Gaffney has chosen to bridge in her portion of Interwoven, at Modern West, has to do with color. Drawing, etching, and lithography, to take three notorious examples, are single-color media. Two-colors at most, counting the support.
Gaffney’s subject matter is nature — not the grand, inspiring, or operatic landscape, but the vignettes one encounters during a walk in the forest, often only a few steps from the trail. It’s the mundane truth of nature, and she gets it, captures its compelling character. She does this in black marks on a white ground, which might usefully be called “colorless.” But where many artists would offer small, even compact views of this intimate scene, Gaffney makes them large, as if to argue that they are as important, and have as much to reveal, as those distant (and remote) vistas.
The lines of color may be more subtle. In “Fallen Trees,” for example, a grid of red diamonds crossed by yellow squiggles that meander through them are largely confined to the right side, where they could almost be overlooked. The figures of the trees could be seen in snow, so blank is the background. Rather, it may be useful to accept that what she shows is only what she wants viewers — we might better call them witnesses — to see. This is almost certainly an invasion of traditionally accepted art, high art, by the relatively recent popularity of scientific illustration. Those who find it to their liking should certainly check out Mary Toscano, in the Alice Gallery, and no doubt there are, or will be, others. For those who may have been less than thrilled by the long-standing contempt of the art world for a fundamental craft that is essential to art, to science, and the training of vision, this elevation of drawing from training and preparation to a worthy form in itself deserves acknowledgement and celebration.
But that leaves the question of why there are those lines in “Fallen Trees.” In “Horizon #3,” a single trunk that extends across four separately-framed views, shares them with an entire drafting exercise, with arcs and other bits of geometry that are emboldened by watercolor segments, along with drips and smears. Similar figures underscore the one larger, geologic vista — “Layers of Time,” in which the geometric pattern repeats in monochrome. Viewers should feel they have permission to interpret such decisions by the artists for themselves, though there will be some audience members who want to “know” what “they” meant. Those viewers should consider that the artists may not know either, or may have a different answer today than when it emerged in their studios. It would be a sad day for art when artists were required to fill out a form justifying their actions, or asking for permission.
Good as that may sound, as the advocate (formerly known as “critic”) for this art, I’m expected to suggest a few possibilities, not just avoid the question. The universe in which we live and ponder it all is made on certain principles, whether the deliberate plans of a supreme being or the rigorous, but haphazardly executed laws of nature. Kiki Gaffney would not be the first artist to see, in the resulting dance of creation, underlying principles that are hidden from view, except to those who study them. So perhaps the abstract patterns that so enhance these scenes from nature are the dance steps of gods (or God, if you prefer), or they may be the mathematical principles that alternately-but again, loosely — determine how the lives and deaths of stars produce the dust of which we are made … and to which we will return. Either way, in these augmented drawings primarily, but not exclusively, of trees, we can see how the life and death of one of these complex and noble forest giants, like the proverbial fall of a sparrow, opens a window into the whole story.
Interwoven: Jim Jacobs, Kiki Gaffney & Anna Laurie Mackay, Modern West Fine Art, Salt Lake City, through Nov. 4