Bottom line: Two talented artists attack their subject matter with a stunning obsessiveness.
Feats of drawing and painting and what might sound like an oxymoron—obsessive delicacy—defines the work of two artists, New York-based Kate Javens and Atlanta-based Christian Bradley West, whose twinned shows inaugurate the new Marcia Wood Gallery Midtown.
Javens’ paintings on wood and muslin come in two sizes: modest and epic, but their subject matter remains consistent. Creatures great and small are featured in these paintings infused with romantic appreciation for the natural world. Javens’ work borrows a page from the life of painter and naturalist Charles Wilson Peale, founder of one of the country’s first public museums Peale’s American Museum, filled with paintings and taxidermy. In a famous 1822 self-portrait “The Artist in His Museum,” a gray-haired Peale lifts a red velvet curtain like some progenitor of P.T. Barnum (who one day would inherit a share of Peale’s specimens), to reveal his museum’s collection of botanical and biological objects.
In Javens’ show “The Animals I Sleep With,” a curtain is also lifted to reveal a rabbit, turtle, horse, lamb and fish among others. In one of Javens’ loveliest images “The Elephant” in oil on wood panel, the animal’s gray hide takes on a velvety softness, its eye a gentle glimmer within a vortex of that delicate flesh. In “The Animals I Sleep With,” it is often the larger works, in oil on theater muslin that captivate, their theatricality enhanced by that lavish scale. Javens’ adoration of her subjects is clear, though perhaps overstated in her oft-repeated gesture of a curtain raised to reveal another member of the animal kingdom.
Though Javens’ paintings are more striking and attention-grabbing, it is Christian Bradley West’s tiny drawings tucked away into a back alcove of the gallery that are often more satisfying. Using a combination of pen, pencil and paint, with jaw-dropping technique, the artist transforms the kind of found photos you’d stumble across at an estate sale into impossibly lovely, melancholy documents of a singular moment in a stranger’s life.
Old photographs are moving in themselves, but there is something in West’s copy of a copy that recharges the magic. These incredibly painstaking drawings suggest an act of devotion in rendering the original photograph with such care. In the equal parts glorious and frightening “Hunter and Grandson” a roguish man leans on his car, his grandson barely visible in the background, dwarfed by the masculine drama in the image foreground. Strapped to the car: two deer carcasses proudly displayed by the swaggering grandfather, like one of Kate Javens’ animal subjects on a bad day. West replicates his found photos with an eerie precision, from the age-corroded surface to the neat white frames of early photo printing.
Where West becomes less steady, less the orchestrator of a marvelous fiction, is in his mix of objects displayed alongside his drawings, which together can feel a bit like a beautiful shop window display. West is clearly enamored with natural objects: wasp nests, tree branches, flowers, which he refashions into sculptures. One of his better sculptural works, “Memento Mori #1” features a tiny cast porcelain bird looking like a castaway adrift on a raft, its small white body juxtaposed with the enormous cliff of charred black wood it rests upon.
It’s as if, in casting his birds in porcelain or in painting his branches gold, West is struggling to arrest time and forestall death. The idea is a solid one and might work with these sculptures presented in a different arrangement, in isolation rather than arranged on shelves like fancy baubles.