It was a very moving experience last night to attend the opening of Kay WalkingStickâ€™s exhibition of new paintings at June Kelly Gallery. Normally, openings are the worst time to try to actually see the work on the walls, but even in the crowded space these powerful paintings demanded and held everyoneâ€™s attention.
These works exude an impressively imposing presence far beyond what one might expect from their relatively modest scale. Melding abstraction and representation successfully is an extremely difficult challenge, and WalkingStick is the rare artist who manages it. The harmonious diptychs include the geometric patterns characteristic of Native American designs (WalkingStick is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma), abstractions rooted in nature here in balanced composition with more representational interpretations of the landscape, which in turn seem rooted in abstraction.
The intellectual and historical underpinnings of her approach, including the themes of Chief Joseph and the Cherokeesâ€™ Trail of Tears, are intense in and of themselves. Yet they become like a surface mist on water that soon parts as Kay WalkingStickâ€™s paintings plunge you into their even greater depths and layers of meaning. The paintings are of great beauty, which has everything to do with awe and wonder as opposed to being merely pretty and pleasing to the eye. They emanate ominousness and enormity. Her mountains have a force of being, a spiritual presence as evident and alive as any portrait ever painted. It is this spirituality of the land and the human connection to it, as well as the implications of rending that connection, that have so much impact.
Because it involves landscape, her work can be the easy basis of art historical comparisons. In the catalog essay, Cynthia Nadelman aptly refers to predecessors such as Marsden Hartley and Giotto. But WalkingStick has long ago developed beyond the referential, and established her own, very specific voice. As a colorist, she is both outstanding and unique. The richness of her handling of materials is clear evidence of an artist in confident, full command.
To quote the catalog, â€œWe will never look at the western landscape â€“ or, for that matter, at these distinctive designs â€“ in the same way after seeing how she relates the one to the other.â€
After a long career continuously pushing and upholding the meaning of personal excellence, Kayâ€™s virtuosity is as monumental as the mountains and history her works convey.
Unfortunately, the reproductions accompanying this review come nowhere near the experience of seeing the work in person. The exhibition is on view at June Kelly Gallery, 591 Broadway between Houston and Prince, until December 8th, 2007. If you would like to meet the artist, she is planning to be in the gallery Saturdays, November 17th and 24th between 3 and 5pm.
Kay Walkingstick has exhibited extensively across the US and Europe. She has been the recipient of many awards and honors such as the Joan Mitchell Award in Painting and a fellowship from the
National Endowment for the Arts. Her work is in numerous public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
For fear of appearing biased, I normally would not review shows at the gallery that also represents my own work. However, I have been an admirer of Kayâ€™s work for many years before we became gallery-mates at June Kelly’s, and believe the merit of this show eclipses any excuse for keeping quiet about it.
[images from top: "The Road to Santa Fe" 2007, oil on wood panel, diptych, 24" x 48"; "Farewell to the Smokies," 2007, oil on wood panel, diptych, 36" x 72"; "Remember the Bitterroots" 2007, oil on wood panel, diptych, 36" x 72"; "Our Land", 2007, oil on wood panel, diptych, 32" x 64". All works copyright Kay WalkingStick, courtesy of June Kelly Gallery.]