Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

John Kaly at Rose Wagner

by Kasey Boone

On Friday, February 18th, a reception for the John Kaly and Brett Peterson exhibitions will be held at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. The exhibitions are up now, however, for the viewing pleasure of the evening guests to the Arts Center and the odd day straggler, like myself, who can find the one unlocked door to the front foyer.

Kaly’s series of small oil portraits on wood panels hang along the curved walls of the mezzanine area. Most are portraits of individuals, generally a bust view, though some are very closely cropped. A couple of the pieces show multiple figures. All are done in the same warm, limited palette.

Kaly has advanced degrees in Art History with an emphasis in early modern European art. To quote the exhibition material, “he became interested in the social history of art, and in particular with issues concerning the nature of viewer response. His work reflects an ongoing interest in historical works of art, both as models to be emulated and as idols to be toppled.”

From what I can tell from the titles, a few of the paintings are self-portraits or portraits of friends. These tend to be cropped images, as if to highlight the intimacy of the work. The rest appear to be portraits worked up from old photographs or paintings. I recognize Ingres’ portrait of Madame Moitessier in one of the paintings. Many others, due to the hairstyles and dress, seem to be from the early twentieth century.

Most of the portraits are a blend of two related styles. Much of the figure is laid out in an extremely flat, poster-art manner. Other parts of the face receive more attention in their modeling, though the lighting stays stark and the overall effect remains graphic. The juxtaposition of styles creates an eerie sense that the old photographs are suddenly becoming alive, if only in part. The full embodiment slowly reaches out of the picture plane, like the girl from the movie The Ring coming out of the television screen.

I understand that Kaly may be presenting his paintings as “idols to be toppled.” The small wood format certainly reflects the idea of icon art. But more than an engagement with the works, I feel a general sense of nostalgia. I think we’ve all been there. Enamored with a certain style of art or music, we become enmeshed in the period. We develop a fascination for the accroutements of the era. It becomes our fantasy world. Maybe this is where Kaly’s art history experience gets in the way. The struggle is always to learn and apply from the past, to reinterpret it, and I’m not sure if this is really what Kaly is doing.

Many artists have tackled their predecessors. Picasso spent his mature years doing so. But that’s precisely it: he did it in his mature years. I think there is some promise in Kaly’s work, some insight that could fully mature as this artist continues to paint. But I think he needs to do much more of that, to distance himself from the books and theories that have occupied most of his studies. I’d like to see what he has in the way of a monologue before he engages in the type of dialogue he attempts in this exhibition.

Installation art by Brett Peterson

John Kaly’s exhibition The Last Facewill hang at the Rose Wagner through March 27th. Showing concurrently is the installation art of Brett Peterson.

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