This summer I was perusing pinterest- a very interesting place to find contemporary artists- and came upon the gallery Arcadia Contemporary in New York City. I was attracted to this gallery by the artists it represents. Michael Carson and Sam Wolfe Connelly, just to name two, portray emotionally riveting images of people. Their characters do not exist in this world as we see it, but in some kind of parallel, fantastical space. Carson’s people are curiously devoid of saturation, living in oscillation with the walls behind them. Sunlight and shadows seem to control their paper-like consistency. Sometimes he depicts one figure several times in the same painting. His world supports the notion of multiple selves. Connelly depicts people floating three inches above the ground, hovering before windows, and crawling out of the earth. His world is dark and filled with an uncanny “otherness.”
It was with this background of Arcadia that I approached the Brad Kunkle exhibit yesterday. This exhibit, entitled “The Belonging,” opened last Thursday. (A reminder came up on my phone while I was writing a 16 page research paper. I almost burst into tears.) “The Belonging” is positioned around the charcoal gray square gallery that is Arcadia Contemporary. It is a small space, but carefully curated to maximize the impact of each monumental painting. When one walks into the gallery, the first thing he sees is this painting:
This painting, entitled “The Near, Far and Leading,” is constructed from gold and silver leaf and oil paint. There are distinct areas for leaf, such as the silver background and the crown of gold leaves, and distinct areas for oil, such as the impeccably shaded skin of this ethereal woman. Yet they are melded in places where the leaf has been sliced, carving thin lines to be filled in with paint. This blend of metal and oil allows the woman to be fully integrated into her dreamlike atmosphere. And what are we to make of this atmosphere? Do we dare call it realistic, in the way that the light reflecting off the silver leaf creates pictorial depth? Or does this reside purely in the realm of the supernatural?
It is my interpretation that this is a love letter to the female body and spirit, a visual sonnet composed to idolize women. It does not fetishize her; one cannot even see her breasts or below her hips. But it is still tantalizing in what it hides, allowing the smoothness of her back to be softly touched by tendrils of hair. The painting also captures and celebrates the freshness of her feminine spirit. She gazes forward with both intensity and calmness, at harmony with herself. The silver and gold merely provide a framework for this celebration of femininity, a backdrop to allow her ethereal qualities to manifest themselves.
This idea of the idolization of the female figure and spirit can be traced throughout “The Belonging.” Kunkle only displays images of fairy-like women in this exhibit, and yet never once does it feel like he does so with male superiority. Here is an painting, entitled “Tidal,” that encompasses this concept:
“Tidal” places a nude female on a gaseous green cloud, covered in golden leaves. I made a strange connection while looking at this painting. The puffy white and green consistency of the clouds reminded me of how I have always envisioned the surface of the planet Venus to be. I can imagine this nymph on Venus, wrapped in its sulfuric air, breathing in carbon dioxide. The strange, poisonous quality of the clouds adds to the “otherness” of Kunkle’s world, as does this nymph’s apparent ability to float through the air. Beyond the uncanniness of the atmosphere, however, is the infatuation with her body and spirit. Leaves obscure parts of her, but her form is still visible, frustratingly out of reach for the viewer (who is projected into the position of a heterosexual male). She gazes provocatively down at us. Her elevated position gives her a kind of power that was not afforded to Academic images of the idealized female nude in the 19th and 20th centuries- she is not being fetishized as such. Raised onto a pedestal for her beauty, yes, but from a sense of awe and wonder, not the desire to consume her. It is a strange balance to keep- celebration of the female body and spirit, without crossing entirely into the realm of sexual desire- and Kunkle handles it masterfully. His treatment of atmosphere and respect for his nude figures make this painting about more than just the seductiveness of women. It is about their otherness, their innate difference of spirit that delights and entrances Kunkle.
Another favorite of mine from “The Belonging” is this painting, entitled “The Nature of History.”
Here, Kunkle uses his signature mix of gold and silver leaf and oil paint to depict a dreamscape of woman, birds, and golden grass. The protagonist is clothed in a sharply contrasting black and white striped shirt. I find that this shirt is a suggestion of reality. Its visual impact grounds the painting from floating entirely into the dream world. The gaze of this woman also struck me… I could not take my eyes from her for several minutes, as I struggled to put into words what was so powerful about it. It came to me today that this woman is extraordinarily aware. She does not confront the viewer with her stare, but remains still, looking out into the distance, alert and watching. I am possessed by the question: what is she watching for? A possible threat to her silver and gold paradise? Or is this, too, a celebration of the female spirit; a love letter to the emotional honesty and intensity of women? It is also important to consider the title of the painting. “The Nature of History” may suggest that, as civilizations have risen and fallen, and men have killed one another on many a battlefield, women have been quietly watching. This woman is timeless, a symbol of the possibility of peace that has always existed. Her shirt, reminiscent of a jail uniform, suggests that she is confined to this eternal in-between, always silently watching the events of the world unfold.
Looking back on these three paintings, there are clear themes that run between them, such as the depiction of women and the otherness of both women and nature. I would like to explore now the title of the exhibit itself: “The Belonging.” What is the connection between the themes of these paintings and the exhibition title? My first instinct is that “the belonging” refers to the relationship between these women and their surroundings. They are so intertwined with their fantasy worlds that the strangeness of these places rubs off on them; it is present in the golden leaves that follow them, and in the quality of their spirit. This title also brings to mind the role of the viewer, or of men, in this bizarre world. Do they belong, do they not belong, or do they merely coexist? Kunkle seems to be asking this question with the serene stares of his protagonists, rather than answering it. The effect is jarring, and leaves the viewer feeling separate from the supernatural spaces of these paintings, and yet simultaneously entranced by it.
If you have the ability to come to New York City before December 28th, I highly recommend visiting Arcadia Contemporary to see Brad Kunkle’s exhibit. The qualities of Kunkle’s gold and silver leaf technique are remarkable in person, and cannot be truly appreciated in a photograph. Perhaps you will come away with a different interpretation of his ethereal women- there are an infinite amount of themes that can be picked out from their gazes, their sleek bodies, and their strange surroundings. I’ll leave you with two more images from this wonderful exhibit: “Where the Current Meets,” and “Chroma 1,” respectively.
I look forward to sharing more exhibits that deal with gender politics in art! This is a subject that has been exciting me recently. Ciao for now~
xoxo, Chloe <3