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MARTIN KLINE "Jewel Paintings" / March 22, 2018

By Barbara Rose
I am dominated by one thing, an irresistible, burning
attraction towards the abstract. The expression of human
feelings and the passions of man certainly interest me
deeply, but I am less concerned with expressing the
motions of the soul and mind than to render visible, so to
speak, the inner flashes of intuition which have something
divine in their apparent insignificance and reveal magic,
even divine horizons, when they are transposed into the
marvelous effects of pure plastic art.
Gustave Moreau On Abstraction
quoted by Jean Peladilhe, Gustave Moreau
Martin Kline worked in the traditional lost wax process to create bronze
casts at Ohio University in the early 1980s. He re-encountered wax in 1996,
but this time as a painting medium, in the form of encaustic. Adding pigment
to a molten mixture of synthetic and purified natural beeswax is the basis of
encaustic painting.
Kline is essentially a colorist who enjoys the interaction of colors as well
as the intensity of pure hues. He is equally and simultaneously a sculptor with
a particularly compelling technique. In this series of jewel tone paintings he
uses offbeat colors such as acid green, glowing orange and regal magenta. The
metaphor of jewels—the way in which they filter and trap light in potent
colors—is highly suggestive. All the paintings in the jewel tone series are
square, which lends uniformity and coherence to the series.
Depending on technique, encaustic can be built up into layers that are
very tactile. This tactility gives color a physical dimension beyond the merely
retinal or optical. Surfaces can suggest bark, fungus or phenomena that reflect
the natural landscape outside at Kline´s rural studio. The implicit reference to
nature is essential to the content of his work.
For Kline, encaustic became an alternative to oil and the water-based
acrylic favored by the color-field painters promoted by the influential art critic
Clement Greenberg. Encaustic also permitted Kline to resolve the problem of
the relationship of the surface to the support, which has plagued painters
since Pollock dripped enamel paint onto raw canvas in the 1950s. Kline solves
the issue of marrying figure and ground, painterly surface to underlying
support, by using a wood panel. His careful construction of box-like supports,
whose frames are an essential part of the paintings, also defines the wood
support as literally flat while simultaneously defining the color applied on it
as a physical substance. By building up the encaustic surface, as opposed to
sinking pigment into the raw support—as watercolor into paper or acrylic into
canvas in the manner of stained color-field painting—he avoids the gradual
disappearance of liquid paint into absorbent, unprepared ground.
As a medium, encaustic has a long history, beginning in ancient Egypt
and Greece. We know the Egyptians used it to paint naturalistic portraits on
wood panels, to be placed over the face of the deceased. According to the
Roman historian Pliny, encaustic was used to depict scenes from mythology
on panels and to color the surfaces of marble, terra cotta, and ivory with a
permanent pigment that would not yellow.
In the instability following the decline of the Roman Empire, encaustic
became a lost art. In the 18th century, encaustic painting was rediscovered
and its use revived, initially by amateurs. In the 20th century, encaustic
techniques were used again by masters such as Mexican muralist Diego
Rivera, the Belgian visionary James Ensor and more recently, by the American
who most raised the medium´s profile, Jasper Johns.
In some works, Kline permits encaustic to splash over the edges of the
wooden support, as a clue to or memory of the creation process. This
reference to process situates the work as constantly in the present (in the
same manner as Marcel Duchamp´s Box with the Sound of its own Making)
reminding one of the moment of its creation. This conceptual element as well
as the physicality and literalness of Kline´s encaustic paintings identify them
as distinctively contemporary. In this series, he directs brushstrokes toward a
center vanishing point, recalling the Renaissance perspective we associate
with Illusionism.
Kline plays with Illusionism in a particularly sophisticated way. In these
constructions, parallel strokes are applied from triangular quadrants at all
four sides of the panel. These are painstakingly laid down at right angles,
becoming shorter as they move toward the center, generating an illusory
sense of receding depth. However, the paintings are built-up higher moving
toward the center in a crescendo that resembles a closed or opened blossom.
This results in a contradiction to classical perspective because the center
literally advances toward the viewer. Although the diagonals created in these
paintings advocate the one-point perspective of Renaissance paintings, their
literal physicality contradicts any type of conventional pictorial illusionism. In
addition to the seductive colors Kline employs, the allure of these paintings is
in trying to understand the space they inhabit. This subtle contrast of
extremes, between literalness and illusionism, defines Kline´s style and
The fascination of Martin Kline´s work also lies in mutually exclusive
disparities that create a tension that nettles and intrigues. The dense material
suggests impenetrability. This is at odds with the delicate and fine application
of encaustic paint. Because the heated wax begins as liquid and is soft when
applied yet dries hard and glossy, the surfaces of Kline´s paintings suggest
fragility and toughness at once.
Contradiction was central to Kline´s vision as it developed. A classically
trained artist as well as a collector of old master drawings and rare Venetian
glass, he is fascinated by detail, precision and craft as well as the techniques
and materials of painting from antiquity to the present. The wood support
accentuates the obdurate thingness of paintings whose irregular surface is
impenetrable but suggestive of waves, growth or movement. One might say
the essence of Kline´s style is a range of mutually exclusive contrasts that set
up a pictorial and physical tension.
The brilliant colors of old master paintings come to mind in the
intensity of Kline´s encaustic palette, most emphatically in the painting Medici.
The intense purple of this painting recalls the hue´s history as a pigment
associated with royal robes and priceless manuscripts. In this group of dense
monochrome works in brilliant colors, the analogy to jewels as precious,
luminous and vibrant is highly relevant. The eye is riveted, the body is
engulfed by the intensity of these hues.
The way Kline uses solid and monochrome color is connected to Matisse
who highlighted its purity by isolating rather than mixing color. The clarity,
intensity, brilliance, and translucency that both traps and reflects light is a
property of both stained and blown glass and I would not be surprised to find
that Kline´s interest in their properties also informs this series of paintings.
Martin Kline is not an ironic postmodernist. He does not follow current
trends of appropriation, political commentary or illustrate theory. His handmade
work generates a visual language arising from his creative process.
How these works are made is a constant mediation between control and
structure, order and chaos. Work does not come from a strategy but by
pushing his own experiments and definitions to pursue a line of investigation,
always with an emphasis on stressing the literal qualities of the materials.
There is a deliberate loftiness to his work that speaks to its materiality
without disclosing his personality or psychology. He works alone in a slow,
quiet and obsessive way, without studio assistants.
In order to make significant new art today the past can neither be
ignored nor repeated. New art must subsume that which came before it in a
fresh and challenging synthesis. Martin Kline understands this and possesses
something uniquely his own.
Palm Beach, March 2018
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