Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Women in the Fields of Gold

So - this particular post is about painter Brad Kunkle. It went up at The Huffington Post a couple days ago, which will go some way toward explaining the more polished demeanor of the writing. Let me add something in the comparative privacy of this blog.

The art world is not that big a world. I'm still working on expanding the range of my interests and tastes, but my default perspective is sympathy with figurative painting. There are only so many figurative painters running around, and I know a lot of them. I know Brad Kunkle. Brad Kunkle is an awfully goddamned nice guy.

also, irritatingly good looking

It gives me the absolute hair-raising heebie jeebies writing about people I know. Two conflicting interests come into play: 1. I feel both professionally and personally constrained to tell only the truth, and 2. How you gonna be mean to your friends?

In the past, while following imperative 1, I have lost friends. There are several artists who used to be friends who don't talk to me anymore on account of critiquing, in some cases solicited, in some cases not.

Now, I went through an art high school. It didn't contribute very much to the kind of art I make today, but it contributed to the kind of artist I am. Which is to say, we were subjected to harsh critique from multiple sources on a regular basis - both formal critique, and nearly ad hominem disparagement. Many artists are soft little marshmallows about critique. I like to think high school toughened me up some.

I am only ever willing to critique other people's work when I have a strong feeling that the artist can actually benefit from anything I have to say - that they have the capacity to improve. Otherwise, what point is there to the trauma of criticism? It's not easy on anyone even when it's productive.

Off-topic: Painter John Wellington is one of the best critiquers I know. He combines a deep understanding of formal and technical issues, and an unbiased insight and sympathy in helping artists become themselves, not little copies of him. If you're studying to be a serious representational artist, you might consider taking his classes. I haven't, but I sat through a critique of this painting one time:

The Maja, Daniel Maidman, oil on canvas, 36"x60", 2009

He tore it to shreds, but in a way that was profoundly useful to me.

Be all that as it may, my experience in losing friends has made me extremely leery of writing about them. One way that I reconcile the two conflicting imperatives is that if I don't have positive things to write, I won't write anything (if any of you reading this are artist friends I haven't written about, there's a much broader eliminator that also applies: if I don't have anything interesting to say beyond "I like this," I can't write about the work either).

So it was with a great deal of trepidation that I decided to write about Brad's work. On the one hand, I wanted to support and share some work which I think is really quite good work, and I had positive and (by my lights) interesting things to point out about it. On the other hand - I know the guy, and didn't want to stop being able to hang out with him. Although he seems like he's got his shit together, I've learned that the randomest comments can cause even sane-looking artists to fly off the handle. It's safest to just go to the opening, enthusiastically say, "Nice!" and hurry off to get another plastic cup of white wine.

Considering the problem from another perspective, I may be quickly writing myself into an untenable position. First and foremost, I'm a painter. I only started the blog because the content on my website didn't change very frequently and somebody told me that dynamic content is "sticky." The writing thing turns out to be something I can also swing. I like to explore interesting topics in art by means of the word. But I'm not a critic, and in fact it is cruelly unfair for a practicing artist to be a professional critic as well. The artist should succeed or fail on the basis of the work, not fear of a bad review or hope for a good one. Moreover, many artists I know have ideas about art just as interesting as mine, but don't have my entirely unearned ability to write it all down in a comprehensible way with funny captions. So - my focus as a writer isn't so much art criticism as chasing the interesting idea. I can live with that from an ethical perspective. But if I find that I can't, I'll have to stop.

Anyhoo, all that made its way through my mind as I was drafting this piece of writing. I'm very excited about Brad's current work. I think he's growing as an artist, and there's nothing in art more exciting than somebody who, already good, is getting better. Many congratulations to him on his new show.


The Women in the Fields of Gold: Brad Kunkle at Arcadia
Consider Brad Kunkle. A painter in his mid-thirties, in high demand on the figurative end of the collector spectrum. Gilded Wilderness, his second solo show at Arcadia Gallery in Soho, New York, sold out before the end of its April 21st opening. His oil-painted figures swim in fields of gold and silver leaf.

The Gilded Wilderness, oil with gold and silver leaf, 42"x80"

Kunkle is one of the most adept leafers working today. His leaf is staggeringly gorgeous: applied with such expert skill that it has become, for him, an expressive medium. He has gone far beyond the plodding square-beside-square you may know from your great-aunt's oversized picture frames. His rectilinear chunks of leaf overlap in wild, irregular mosaics. He dabs tiny fragments of leaf to create images of actual leaves. He paints on top of his leaf, varying its reflectivity, rendering everything from landscapes to graphic patterns on his shimmering ground.

This quality is not an unqualified virtue. Rather, it is a steep challenge. Leaf done beautifully aches to dissolve into treacly sweetness. It is beauty as our lizard brains understand beauty: the cheap appeal of shiny things, depthless. Kunkle mastered the application of leaf several years ago, not long after becoming extremely proficient at painting the figure.

These are both powerful tools, the leaf and the figure. For the better part of the 20th century, notable artists developed a personal vision first, and tools later, if ever. Kunkle belongs to a faction of young artists who take craft seriously, and develop tools first. This faction is afflicted with love of its tools; many scoff at the proposition that vision is a separate and prior concept. Kunkle does not. Since 2009, he has rotated his approach, recognizing that gaining a skill is not so much as knowing what to do with it.

When it comes to other people’s work, I’m more of an art appreciator than an art critic. You’ll have to forgive me – you can’t really be an art critic and an artist at the same time. It’s not fair to you, and it’s not fair to other artists. So I’m going to go straight to some work in the new show that I really appreciate.

A little backstory: Kunkle’s initial encounter with leaf drew him to Klimt. But without Klimt’s essential erotomania, Kunkle was left with compositions aimlessly overpopulated by gusts of leaves, art nouveau swirls, and skinny chicks. He has abandoned much of that approach, winnowing out the things it turned out were personal to him: a genuinely odd sense of graphic design, the leaf, and the figures. Increasingly, the figures are not ciphers but people. Consider Bird of Paradise:

Bird of Paradise, oil with gold and silver leaf, 30"x40"
This is far removed from Klimt. Generically, there is still a similarity, but the meticulously controlled parade of feather-eyes, and the timbre of the face, belong to Kunkle, not his predecessor. As accomplished as this is, the smallish Her Own Field represents a more complete departure from the Klimtian paradigm:

Her Own Field, oil with gold and silver leaf, 16"x20"
The figure makes the painting. In deference to the figure, the composition is subdued. It partakes of Kunkle's sense of organic shape, evoked in the sumptuous line of golden field against golden sky. But the elements are spare, the detail low, and the eye is drawn to the face and the emotions which play out upon it. Although Kunkle has been good at painting people for a while, he moves here beyond mimesis of the physical and into the ambiguous realm of psychology.

These paintings strike me as being among Kunkle's first mature paintings. They have mass and personal investment. He acknowledges a debt to the past while moving forward on his own. There is some obvious Wyeth to Her Own Field. There is a touch of Diebenkorn. In the two pieces, and in the similarly simplified Untitled Study, there is a feeling of the other great pole of leafed painting: the medieval ikons.

Untitled Study, oil with gold and silver leaf, 8"x8.5"
The ikons had an unadorned sincerity to them, based in the childlike equation of the figures being precious religiously, and the metal being precious monetarily. There are few statements simpler than, "I love you most, so I'll give you the best thing I have." This unblushing devotion illuminates the ikons. Kunkle's new paintings do not look like the ikons, but they share the unblushing devotion, and the metal. Here, Kunkle has made his mastery of metal work for him as an artist. It does not glitter. It glows.

Gilded Wilderness, at Arcadia Gallery, 51 Greene St., New York, NY,
10013, until May 5
Brad Kunkle:


  1. Daniel, I read this post in the Huffington, and I loved it. I am an admirer of Kunkle's work. There's technique masquerading as art, and artful technique. I think he's definitely the latter. I'd also say to go ahead and say whatever you want about all those other artist, since I don't know them...

    1. Very fucking funny, Kevin. But I think I'll stick with my preferred model of speaking ill only of the dead. I'm glad you liked the rest of the piece and that you're an admirer of Kunkle's work as well. I like the distinction you draw, and which side of it you put him on... happy painting, and thanks for the note.

  2. Your intro was almost more amusing than the article itself. I always love it when people who solicit your critique then get pissed off at you for giving it honestly! But it happens all the time! Apparently we women aren't the only ones who ask whether these jeans make our butt look big...

  3. I'm glad you got almost as much of a kick out of the off-the-record bit as the on-the-record bit.

    I am no good at the dishonest solicited critique. And after my first experience losing a friend over a critique, I only offer them solicited.

    The problem with women is that they don't realize that a lot of the time, their butt looking big is a good thing. Sadly, the art-critique equivalent is almost never true.