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New Paintings

See Sky paintings

The new paintings of Dena Kahan are painterly impossibilities. Every aspect of their painterly compositional mise-en-scene is geared to the impossibility of reading the whole.

With these lush works, the horizon line has been summarily dissolved, making a fiction of capturing the landscape, which is something that might, or might not be imagined sitting just outside of the frame. On the one hand, each work appears to function as a discreet object; the boundary of the picture contains specifically scaled baroque illusions of clouds, and floating transparent forms that may, or may not be solid. But none of the paintings can claim an individual title; the frames intersect and interlink as elements that we might see in a conventional installation. There are no accommodatingly smooth gradations in scale and orientation; a continuous landscape is suggested by the formal arrangement on the wall, but the plays of depth within each fragment refuse a reading of a continuously unified space.

With all the larger works, the spatial, geographical and cultural reference points remain elusive. Glass vessels float across visceral skies which ultimately have no determinable scale or even an identity as things; as indexical, symbolic referents of the literal objects of still life glass painting. They might equally be taken for bubbles or spume, or droplets of water. The scale of these ambiguous transparencies alters across the work, and this also pushes and pulls our spectatorial eye in and out of the sequence.

These paintings invite us in to a figurative painterly party; at the same time they resolutely refuse us entry to conclusive narrative; we remain poised at the threshold of the 'frame' or 'story' while the translucent balloons float away. There is no string, and no hand attached. No ground from which these forms have been given release. The images are emptied of all sentimentality in this regard; they posit the rich painterly surface of desire, yet anchor themselves in a post-modern notion of fragmentation and loss of location.

The skies themselves offer us a series of allusions to bits of skies from other pictures, other time-honoured cultural constructions of other skies. We might hope to name Vermeer, Van Ruisdael, Fragonard or Tieoplo, but we will never be sure, and it is this plotting of quotational uncertainty with sky and glass and bubble that both tantalises, and traps us in our desires for narration and conclusion. The question arises: How do we situate these gentle subversions against the weight of other types of deconstructed space, scale and form? The artist references, at least in a symbolic way, the spatial plays of installation; but it is rare to see an installation of iconic fragments of figurative paintwork played up or 'deployed' in this way. In this way the artist brings an original sensibility and exploration to bear.

When we look at these works, we are not led to a memory of a red balloon falling away above the rooftops of Paris; instead, we have the uncertainty of something that might be a balloon hitting up against something stormy and threatening; something that might be a chunk of a bit of background from Vermeer, but which might equally be the false-domed, painted set from The Truman Show. We are left with the idea of the sky as eternal cultural construction, and invited to meditate upon paint, and the metaphorical riches of its historical service to clouds.

Amanda Johnson 2002