Last Wednesday night I attended the opening exhibition for “Keith Kattner: Urban Bucolic” at Salomon Arts Gallery. I was very excited about this exhibition for two reasons: the artist’s background and the exhibition genre.
Keith Kattner grew up in Bloomington, Illinois, where his exposure to art came in the form of art lessons at the age of ten. He continued to paint in high school, focusing mainly on the sweeping landscapes of the Hudson River School. And yet, when he reached university, he chose instead to pursue biology. When asked about this decision, Kattner thanks a fateful internship at a pathology laboratory for making up his mind– an internship he received on the condition he garden for his boss’s wife. Kattner would become a renown neurosurgeon and perform surgeries for thirty years.
One day, Kattner picked up a paintbrush for the first time in many years. Little by little, he started spending more and more of his (minimal) free time painting. He taught himself, he says, with the same discipline one must have to become an adept surgeon. Finally, his desire to paint became so strong that he stepped away from the medical field altogether. He had already acquired independence as a medical student. “Medicine taught me about the value of self-education,” writes Kattner. “During surgical residencies you receive some guidance from mentors but a great deal of the education was self-taught.” This ability served him well as he dedicated himself to mastering the art of painting. “I applied the approach of self-education to being a self-taught artist,” explains Kattner. He is now a full-time artist, painting in a genre that feels both revisited and wholly new.
My second source of excitement was the matter of this genre. I knew that Kattner was heavily influenced by American landscape artists and by older Italian works. I’d seen only a couple small images of Kattner’s paintings, and these suggested a certain something that rendered his work contemporary to the eye. In my review, I will unravel this something and share with you the joyously calming exhibition, “Urban Bucolic.”
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My favorite painting in the exhibition is Reflection Six (2016). Take a look:
What stands out to me about Reflexion Six is the tangible tension between the soft and the hard. Note the blended brushstrokes that fill the neatly fluffed trees. No single leaf is visible, only the suggestion of a crowd of soft leaves. There are no strong distinctions between cloud and sky, only a hazy, gradual gradient one feels rather than sees.
In contrast, the tableau formed by the house and its visitors is anything but soft. It is strong, constructed with symmetry in mind. If you folded this painting in half, almost all of the figures and trees would meet their twin on the opposite side of the canvas. The figures have smooth, creamy skin, but it is sharply highlighted by purposeful streaks of light. Many are positioned with a visibly bent elbow or knee, maximizing the presence of angles in this human tableau. Lastly, the precision with which the reflection is constructed lends the painting a mathematical quality. Though Kattner does incorporate his knowledge of the empirical sciences into his work, he says that any mathematical precision is unconscious. Conscious or not, this sense of equilibrium reverberates throughout Reflextion Six. The reflections in the water are as neat and precise as their origin sources. The undisturbed water is a perfect mirror. This precision feels oddly precarious; should a pebble fall into the lake, the entire reflection would be skewed, and the spell cast by this painting would be broken.
The effect of these two strong drives- for softness and for sharp precision- is tension. It is not a harsh feeling, and it is certainly nothing that would make you turn your head. It is rather like two friends holding hands and leaning away from one another; should one let go, they would both lose their balance. And then you would be left with a landscape too irritatingly symmetrical or sentimentally soft to be interesting. As it is, Reflection Six is perfect.
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I was also quite fond of Untitled 1 (2017). Take a look below:
The subject of this work is industrial, but the mood is whimsical. Few of the structures in this factory are rectangular prisms; most are rounded, with curved sides and tops. Free from 90 degree angles, Untitled 1 lacks the harshness and rigidity that often accompany factory scenes. Kattner has also applied his soft brushwork to these structures, smoothing oil paint over the barrel of a truck and the cylinder of a smokestack. Whereas real, functioning machinery would surely be covered in dents from wear and tear, the equipment here is scratch-free. These machines are like new toys rather than factory equipment.
This enchanting, toylike atmosphere recalls the work of Grant Wood, whose trees looked like broccoli and whose galloping steeds resembled toy rocking-horses. Kattner’s painting also bears semblance to the early industrial scenes painted by Thomas Hart Benton, but they lack his predecessor’s propagandistic edge. While Benton sought to glorify the worker as a symbol of American progress and values, Kattner allows his works to simply be. There is a calmness to his portrayal of American industry that Benton, and other early American painters, lack. “Most of my life was spent in the same location as the American regionalists, so the subject matter is somewhat similar,” explains Kattner. “However, my art is not totally in reflection of the reality before me, but a world recognized in my mind.” This element of utopia separates Kattner’s work from that of Benton. The artist most like Kattner in artistic temperament is Edward Hopper, whose farm scenes demonstrate a similar pensive tranquility.
The urge to compare Kattner’s paintings to his predecessors is a result of the familiarity the artist exudes in his works. As we have seen, there are traces of Wood, Benton, and Hopper in Untiled 1, but there are also characteristics that are purely Kattner. (The aforementioned tension between soft & hard, and a sense of precariousness to perfection). We can add to our list of Kattner’s techniques the ability to conjure nostalgia. We feel as if we have known the artist forever, and lived a lifetime inside his paintings.
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A third work that really stands out from this exhibition is the most “Urban Bucolic” of all: City Scene (2017).
City Scene is special because it depicts the aspects of city-living that defy urban stereotypes. We think of cities as monstrous metropolises without any hint of nature, where people walk quickly past their anonymous neighbors. In City Scene, the most noticeable hue is green. Green trees and grass dot the entire foreground of the canvas. The viewer is situated in a park or backyard next to one-story buildings that might be homes or cafes. People sit together on chairs and chat, while others perch on sunny rocks, enjoying the summer air. Another person has just entered the scene- he raises a hand as he says hello to his friends. Kattner’s City Scene defies expectation: it is friendly, warm, and green. The artist found a way of life akin to the pastural among honking cars and hordes of people.
It is not a far stretch to infer that this urban space is New York City, due to the yellow cab passing by. Kattner spent two years living in New York after leaving his medical post in order to study paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There are so many wonderful, quiet spots in the City that tourists miss. It brings me joy to imagine Kattner setting up his easel near the Harlem Meer in Central Park, or by families enjoying the last of summer at Brighton Beach.
In City Scene, Kattner also paints a breathtaking sky.
There is something divine about the way this otherworldly pink light shines through the gap in the buildings. It is more powerful than the structures framing it. Next to this light, the beauty of a strong, tall building is forgotten. One stares, transfixed, at the haze of glowing light. It is then that time and place becomes irrelevant. Urban space, rural space; no matter. Under the pink light of the sky we are all secondary. It is soothing to know that this light will always be there. We all inhabit this idyllic world.
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Keith Kattner is an artist whose paintings revisit the American landscape with a fresh eye and a new set of tools. His ability to create tension, engender nostalgia, and find peace amongst chaos separate him from other contemporary landscape artists. Perhaps he is not a painter of landscapes at all, but of moments in time, and our lifelong relationships with those moments.
Until next time!