Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Kermit Oliver and his Precursors

Robert Boyd

There are two shows up at the Art League right now, both showcasing painters. Neither is known as an abstractionist. But they are on different sides of abstraction. Kermit Oliver comes across as a pre-modern painter while Rachel Hecker is a thoroughly post-modern artist. It's an intriguing pair of shows. I was walking through Kermit Oliver: Tracing Our Pilgrimage when I saw a painting that stopped me dead in my tracks.

Kermit Oliver, Buckeye Atop a Mexican Wheel, 1997, acrylic on panel, 55 x 38 inches

I was reminded of a great American painting After the Hunt by William Harnett.

William Harnett, After the Hunt, 1885

Oliver's painting is quite spare compared to Harnett's busier painting, but the two are clearly related. The rabbits are in nearly identical positions. Harnett was part of a school of American still-life painters who often painted nearly flat subjects--particularly things pinned to or hanging from a wall. The work had a somewhat trompe-l'oeil quality. But to modern eyes, these paintings read like precursors to modernism (sort of the way that the poems of Emily Dickinson are like modernist poems avant le lettre). The subject matter is pushed very close to the picture plane, removing the feeling of a framed picture as a window into space.

But what does it mean for Kermit Oliver to be playing with Harnett-like flatness in Buckeye Atop a Mexican Wheel. Oliver is not a modernist, but he lives in a world where modernism happened. This painting deliberately links the two worlds of modernism and premodernism, just as Harnett and John Peto did unwittingly back in the 19th century. Indeed, the arrangement of the two rectangles above the rabbit reminds me of Kazimir Malevich.

Kazimir Malevich, Painterly Realism of a Boy with a Knapsack - Color Masses in the Fourth Dimension, 1915, Oil on canvas

The point is that Kermit Oliver's art is not easy to pigeonhole. It looks like painterly realism from the 19th century, but as Buckeye Atop a Mexican Wheel shows us, nothing is quite that simple. For someone used to thinking in categories, that makes his work difficult to write about. And that difficulty is a siren call--writing about Oliver's work is irresistible but likely to crash on the shoals. But when I saw Malevich and Harnett reflected in Buckeye Atop a Mexican Wheel, I was reminded of one of my favorite essays, "Kafka and His Precursors" by Jorge Luis Borges, written in 1951. It's one I have referred to explicitly in my critical writing, and it is always in the back of my mind.

Borges lists a group of literary and philosophical works that remind him in various ways of elements he finds in the work of Kafka. These include the work of Kierkegaard, a poem by Robert Browning, a story by Léon Bloy, etc. He concludes the essay with these observations:
If I am not mistaken, the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other. This second fact is more significant. In each of these texts we find Kafka's idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist. The poem "Fears and Scruples" by Browning foretells Kafka's work, but our reading of Kafka perceptibly sharpens and deflects our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we do now. In the critics' vocabulary, the word "precursor" is indispensable, but it should be cleansed of all connotation of polemics or rivalry. The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future. (from a translation by James E. Irby)
I might not have ever thought about William Harnett and Kazimir Malevich together if not for Buckeye Atop a Mexican Wheel. Oliver is an artist whose work is always shaded by the work of the past. And the past is a tool with which one can approach Oliver's work.

Kermit Oliver, A Small Menagerie Poised Before Approaching Summer Shower, 2013, acrylic on masonite with handcrafted frame, 50 3/4 x 40 1/2 inches framed

A Small Menagerie Poised Before Approaching Summer Shower is a charming group portrait of various animals, mostly domesticated (cow, sheep, ass, pig, cat, rooster) with some wild animals (fox, rabbit, skunk, various birds). They are posed in a landscape of central Texas--a vast prairie with a thunderstorm visible miles away. Oliver calls is a "summer shower," but the size of it makes it seem slightly ominous. But like so often in August in September, the storm is somewhere over there while the sun is shining here.  So the figures in the foreground are bathed in intense light--the colors of the grass, the flowers and the rooster are intense, and the white birds are very white. Oliver may be influenced by Northern European art, but he paints a scene that feels 30° north, not 50°.

Edward Hicks, Peaceable Kingdom, circa 1834, oil on canvas, 30 × 35.5 inches

Edward Hicks painted Peaceable Kingdom in 1834 to reflect his Quaker beliefs. It doesn't reflect a specific biblical verse, but certainly Isaiah 1:16 comes to mind: "The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them." In Oliver's version, however, the large predators are missing. The owl, the cat and the fox are the only three hunters I see, and they aren't especially fearsome. Oliver isn't depicting a scene where lions and leopards and wolves lay down with goats and calves and lambs. But perhaps the dangerous element is the storm itself. Between these (mostly) domesticated animals and the power of nature there is a kind of peace, or at least a truce. In this reading, the use of the phrase "Summer Shower" in the title makes sense.

Kermit Oliver, Dido and Aeneas, 21997, acrylic on gessoed birch panel with handcrafted frame, 50 x 32 inches

Dido was the queen and founder of Carthage according to legend. In the Aeneid, she falls in love with Aeneas, a Trojan refugee who will later become the ancestor of the Romans. Dido herself is a refugee from Tyre in Lebanon. Aeneas also loves her, but is told by Mercury that Jupiter wants him to leave Carthage and go to Rome. Dido kills herself when he leaves.

At one time, every well-educated gentleman in Europe was very familiar with this story from the Aeneid. It was the subject of many European artworks, most notably the Purcell opera, Dido and Aeneas. And there have been many paintings depicting Dido and Aeneas.

Nicolas Verkolye, Dido and Aeneas, early 1700s, oil on canvas, 34 1/4 x 45 1/4 inches

This one by Nicolas Verkolye (owned by the Getty) is typical. All the characters look very European--in this case, Northern European. Dido is a pale blonde. European artists before the 19th century typically painted classical and Biblical subjects as if the characters were from their own country. (Hence the very blonde Christ is Grunewald's Isenheim Alterpiece.) So for Oliver, who is African American, to depict Dido as a black woman is not a break from the European tradition but a continuation of it.

But what is a break is that Oliver's Dido and Aeneas doesn't depict Aeneas. There are three shrouded figures on the left and Dido alone on the right. She is staring into a vague distant space; she looks unbearably sad. Aeneas is present in the picture in her despair. One could even read this as taking place just after her suicide--the white greasepaint on her face gives her a ghostly appearance and the shrouded figures could be read as grieving mourners.

Kermit Oliver, Orpheus, 1997, acrylic on gessoed birch panel with handcrafted frame, 50 x 52 inches framed

Since classical times, artists have been depicting Orpheus, one of the key Greek mythological figures. Orpheus sang and played the lyre so well that his music was capable of calming wild animals. This image is frequently the subject of depictions of Orpheus. Such pictures often have a variety of animals--carnivores and herbivores--surrounding Orpheus as he plays. In this way, they prefigure The Peaceable Kingdom and reflect Isaiah 1:16.

Orpheus surroundend by animals. Ancient Roman floor mosaic, from Palermo, now in the. Museo archeologico regionale di Palermo

Greek and Roman depictions show him plying a lyre. But later European paintings usually show him playing a bowed string instrument.

Sebastian Vrancx, Orpheus and the Beasts, c. 1595, Oil on panel, 55 x 69 cm 

In other words, just as in depictions of Dido and Aeneas, artists made the image of the myth into something local and contemporary. In the case of Orpheus, he plays a lyre in the Roman mosaic and a violin in the Flemish Sebastian Vrancx painting. So why not an accordion in Oliver's version? Likewise, Oliver puts Orpheus in contemporary clothes and makes him a black man. He doesn't view the myth as something from the distant past but something that is continually present.

But where he does depart from earlier depictions of Orpheus is that the beast in this painting is not calm. On the contrary, Orpheus has a split second to pick up that accordion and start playing, or else he's dead meat. Orpheus is a strange painting. In addition to the attacking tiger, the flowers and the book are difficult to relate to the myth. Oliver may be drawing on a myth that has inspired art and religious practices since at least the 6th century BCE, but he takes possession of it with an idiosyncratic interpretation and personal symbols.

Kermit Oliver, A Swine Before a Silvered Bowl of River Pearls, 2012, acrylic on panel with handcrafted frame, 30 x 24 inches

Mathew 7:6 reads, "Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you." The Bible is a source of much of Oliver's art. He has painted many scenes from the Bible, including a controversial rendering of his son Krystian as Jesus. When I think of Christianity today, I think of a religion that is often distrustful of beauty and of art. For example, I am struck by how many churches in Houston are in unadorned metal sheds--it's as if building a beautiful church would be vain or sinful. But Oliver reminds us that there are Christian artists working today whose work embraces beauty and reflects their own highly personal relationship with their religion. 

This is a subject that deserves a deeper examination. So too does Oliver's technique. And something should be said about the magnificent frames that go with each painting. Perhaps when someone publishes a monograph on Oliver, these aspects of his work will get the examination they deserve. For now, go to the Art League and sample Oliver's unique oeuvre.


1 comment:

  1. Yeah, great. The paintings are pretty sweet. I found the surfaces disappointingly spare. I was thinking alot about Henry Tanner, too, when looking at the work. The Christian themes are a little oft-putting. But I agree they are complex works. Frames were labeled as handmade. I'd like to know if they were artist made. A postal employee also making virtuoso paintings and chopping out frames is pretty cool. Too bad Heckler didn't have some of her Jesus stuff up too.