Making Faces -- David Kane's Creations Have Lots Of Personality
Special To The Seattle Times
------------------------------- "David Kane: Monoprints" Through April 11 at the Two Bells Tavern, 2313 Fourth Ave., Seattle (206-441-3050). -------------------------------
The perfect complement to the Chuck Close exhibit at Seattle Art Museum is lining the walls at a tavern in the Denny Regrade. It's a bunch of faces - 108 to be exact - but not systematically rendered portraits of the artist's friends like those you'll see at the Close exhibit. These are figments, or, as the artist, David Kane, bills them: "inhabitants of the artist's mind." He calls the show "Kane's Book of Physiognomy."
Physiognomy is a way of judging a person's inner character by his or her outer countenance. We often make that kind of assessment unconsciously, even though more sophisticated parts of the brain may insist that a book can't be judged by its cover. Kane's creatures practically beg to have their personalities interpreted, each is so distinctive. Like us, each is one of a kind - which makes Kane's choice of the monoprint medium especially appealing.
Compare that to Close, who recycles his faces. If he likes a particular visual effect - say the turbulent aura of curls surrounding the face of Philip Glass - he'll recreate that face over and over, by airbrush, by thumb print, by collage, whatever. Rather than becoming more real, Glass, as a person, disappears. The "portraits" (Close hesitates to use the word) are really vehicles for his formal concepts and painstaking technical virtuosity.
Kane's people are wonderfully expressive. They seem poised at a crucial moment of their life scripts, each personality writ on the subtle conglomeration of facial parts. There is no color to distract attention or confuse a viewer's emotional response, just degrees of black and white. Our assessment of these "people" must evolve from a response to the shape of the head, the placement of the eyes, the set of a chin, the rise or fall of cheekbones.
Kane works quickly. He cranked out the crowd of faces on the walls of the Two Bells - and there are more, he admits - a half dozen at a time "on certain Sundays in 1998." By contrast, Close will typically spend months on a single image, meticulously building the semblance of a face from a grid of individual marks. A Close portrait is an awe-inspiring tour de force, both of concept and technique.
And Kane's quick creations? I'd have to say that they're awesome, too, but for different reasons. Kane's images are amazing for the complexity he achieves with a few sparse gestures. Not just the variety of visual effects - the straight white sweep of a nose, the blotted bulge of a cranium, a cheek mottled with a drizzle of thinner on the ink - but the vast cross-section of human personalities he conjures out of standard components - eyes, nose, mouth, ears, hair, neck, a bit of shoulder - evocatively arranged.
Maybe what Kane's faces really are is a kind of Rorschach test of our own inner world - a map of associations and preconceptions. For me, the face of "Carlotta" has an Emily Dickenson-style sensitivity and plaintiveness; "Xavier" a baroque nobility. "Fausto" seems like a good enough guy - intelligent and curious - while "Vaughn" looks vague, indecisive. "Agnes," with her upswept hair and wide ruffled collar, is somewhere between regal and foolish, as royalty often are. (On the other hand, maybe she's really a clown.) Some of the faces remind me of the subjects chosen and executed by other artists. I saw an early Picasso, a Lucian Freud, a Francis Bacon.
Kane has a reputation for an interest in outer space: His previous paintings feature space ships and fantastic settings and he curated "They Came Here First," a show of UFO art, at COCA a couple years ago. Obviously, science-fiction images of outer space and its denizens have a lot to do with the space inside our heads, too. For me, every Kane face, as it emerges from the black void of ink surrounding it, is a starting point for a thousand potential narratives, each irresistible.
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