Wyatt Kahn “Knots & Figures” at Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Vienna

Wyatt Kahn “Knots & Figures” at Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Vienna

A syntax of irregular, disarticulated, and structured forms typifies Wyatt Kahn’s three-dimensional wall works, assembled into compositions as abstract as they are connotative. Consider A Bar, where geometries of semi-circular apertures, cut out of square enclosures, accumulate upon a dense surface, like seared-through coasters or half-empty glasses left in disarray on a countertop. Or Untitled (Him and Us), which reprises a motif familiar to Kahn’s lexicon―a vertical body articulated through the accumulation of a stack of thin, rib-like bands at its core, amplified, wrapped, even embraced by rigid U-shaped arms that lace over and under the primary ground. Anthropomorphizing metaphors arise easily, as he playfully straddles the line between geometric abstraction and figuration, between painting and sculpture, all the while intervening in each category’s respective and entangled historical lineages and discourses. And then there are his titles: The Girl with Hoops, Acrobat. Kahn’s syntax, articulated in form, is a grammar of signs within which language, too, plays an important role.

Take Standing Bather, an assembly of vertical edged columns staging a gathering of sorts—one that culls from the vast annals of art historical figures of the bather, only to render them here, unadorned, raw, unmodulated, as mere evocation. The subjects in this series, hinted at despite the seeming abstraction of Kahn’s forms, are deeply embedded in fields of reference spanning art history, but also the everyday, the domestic, the personal, the imagined: Acrobat may gesture to Picasso’s 1930 titular portraits of flexible figures contorting the human form into improbable postures, but it may just as easily evoke objects as quotidian as the step ladders in the artist’s studio and home, to say nothing of the narrative possibilities that may arise from the conflation of both nouns. Kahn never altogether casts out the subject; instead, it might reappear only because abstract geometries lend it new form.

Indeed, through his elaboration of the shaped canvas―a project he has undertaken since the start of his artistic career―Kahn has taken a unique approach to pictorial concerns, refracted through a sculptural lens. If his work has evolved at the intersection of painting and sculpture, it has also, more recently, intentionally revisited both mediums as independent fields within which to reenact and occasionally expand on–the experiments carried out at their crossing. In “Knots & Figures,” a new series of oil paintings on canvas, elaborated alongside corresponding or related shaped canvases, compress the latter’s dimensional play within a single pictorial plane. In their complex overlays of lines, forms, colors, and strokes, Kahn’s oil paintings are like aggregates of the additive and subtractive procedures that inform his wall works, reverse-engineered to redeploy these operations in a purely pictorial register. Here, figure and ground hover and supplant one another fluidly, suspended at the surface that both recedes and advances in depthless space. With these forms’ sculptural analogues in mind, for Kahn, painting can never reassume its static place as the medium of illusion, nor can it simply perform as the medium of flatness.

Unsurprising, but certainly not unremarkably, then, is Kahn’s embrace of high-relief, nearly free-standing sculpture in a new series of small, cast bronzes. While his sculpture has taken monumental dimension in his 2021 public works commissioned for outdoor display, these new bronzes are less environmental than they are object-like, intimate, visceral even, in their literalization of the internal, formal relationships evoked in his “flat” wall-hung works. Endowed with volume and mass, these sculptures render plane and line in space: thin serpentine lines become intestinal conduits knotted and wrapped around a central, supporting shape defined through positive mass and cut-out voids. These are familiar staples of the artist’s visual repertoire resurfaced, or reconstituted as more than, beyond, surface―a transposition that, across mediums, materials, supports, and substrates, adds yet another dimension to Kahn’s ongoing project.

Rachel Valinsky

at Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Vienna
until December 22, 2022

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