Pools of Potential

A young painter makes a splash with his debut.

"Untitled," by Craig Kucia, painting.
"Untitled," by Craig Kucia, painting.
An artist's first solo show need not be epic in scope to be impressive. A case in point is the exhibit now on view at Shaheen Modern and Contemporary Art. It's called The Days Are Spent . . . and features just a dozen paintings.

Craig Kucia is the artist, and since his is not (yet) a household name, a few words about his background are in order. He's a Chardon native, in his 20s, who graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art in May 1999. During his senior year at CIA, he garnered "Best of Show" honors at the school's 1999 independent exhibition. What is impressive so far about Kucia is that he blends technical know-how with practical communicativeness. The work is not uniformly successful, but Kucia has something to say, and sometimes he says it well.

What Kucia and others like him have done is to remind us, in an age of conceptual and video art, that the sensuous properties of the painting medium hold great potential rewards. Indeed, viewing Kucia's large and texturally complex canvases, one can understand why many artists today are hotly protesting the art world's claim that painting has outlived its glory days and should take a long rest. Kucia's paintings are not easy to "place," and that's a good thing. It's been derisively said that most contemporary art is about art. That is, it does not seem to be about either the artist's experiences or those of his audience, but rather about playing a game of "Name That Tune" for art groupies.

While Kucia also participates in the postmodern fascination with polystylism (mixing and matching artistic styles, sometimes in the same canvas), he's good at mixing styles and is disciplined enough to place the new mix in the service of a statement about life. He may be a dedicated postmodernist, but he doesn't spend all his time creating art about art. What, in a nutshell, is his take on life? Whatever it is, it seems to have something to do with the flowers that constantly appear in his paintings. Those flowers, especially the roses, suggest both beauty and faded glory. Artist Claes Oldenburg once referred to "the art of slightly rotten funeral flowers," and that might be a way of understanding what Kucia offers us here.

Most of the paintings in the exhibit consist of a cream background onto which Kucia has added depictions of plants, flowers, and shrubbery in bold, saturated colors. Although the cream background is lacquer-smooth, the plant life is texturally varied. Twentieth-century artists like Frenchman Jean Dubuffet and Holland's Karel Appel exploited the sensuous property of the paint itself to better suggest the free play of irrational forces, which they saw as an integral part of the creative process. Kucia is an heir to this tradition. His roses, especially, are given rich painterly treatment. The globby, viscous petals look as though they could be peeled off the canvas. Indeed, such sections are a species of relief sculpture; the object has been partially liberated from the canvas.

In addition to the dense surfaces of Dubuffet, Kucia's flowerscapes evoke the work that American artist Cy Twombly was producing in the early 1990s. That artist used flecks and droplets of paint to build up his flowers. The results have an impressive tactile vividness -- the raised surfaces are a record of the artist's able hand. Twombly's vivid flowers also emerge from neutral cream-colored backdrops. Similarities stop there. Kucia's paintings seem to be about stress (the brushwork is almost violent in spots), whereas Twombly's are a nostalgic evocation of a lost beautiful moment. Thus, Kucia has borrowed the vocabulary, but he has rearranged the words (and deleted some) to create his own lyrics. The confidence of the results is impressive.

Kucia is less impressive when he moves away from the plant world. His crisp, geometrical interiors are a grab-bag of modernist strategies: They employ the trick of affixing a piece of unpainted canvas to the already painted one, so that the viewer is reminded that this is a painting and not an attempt at setting up an illusion of reality. They also have American abstract artist Hans Hofmann's "push and pull" between the flatness of the canvas and the suggestion of depth, and finally, a dash of surrealism, as a flower in full bloom appears to grow from the foot of a bed.

The artist's major failing, at this stage, is that he seems to construct his paintings in blocks: Sections follow one another, but Kucia has not yet discovered a way to unite the sections of a canvas so that it reads as one entity in which each part is integral to the whole. So, for example, in the flower paintings, each flower is a world unto itself, with its own texture and color combinations. There is no rhythm that carries the viewer from flower to flower. An artist can pursue discontinuity for expressive purposes, but here, one feels that the discontinuity is not by design, but rather because the artist hasn't been able to weld pieces together to form a whole.

The experience one gets is of being given the chapters of a novel and being told to arrange them so that the story makes sense. Even if Kucia wanted things this way (perhaps to encourage viewers to be free in their interpretations), this would be problematic. When Franz Kafka died, no one knew for sure what order the chapters of his unfinished novel The Trial were supposed to be in. Since the Czech writer hadn't affixed a number to the chapter headings, his literary executor did the best he could and tried to figure out the way things were supposed to go, based on the internal evidence offered by plot development, characterization, and other matters. If he had lived longer, Kafka would have given the novel a final shape. He didn't set out to create a novel that could plausibly be ordered in several different ways.

Kucia leaves too much to the viewer. It's great to respect an audience's intelligence and to allow interpretive freedom, but if an artist wants to be more than just a provocateur, he must give the work an order before the audience gets to it. That way, too, interpretations will be better grounded in what the artist has put into his work. After all, when a work can mean practically anything at all, it really means nothing.

Although his ornate roses have already reached their peak, Kucia seems to be telling us that there is something eloquent about their initial stages of decline. The title of the show further hints at the mixture of turbulence and resignation expressed in such work. If this show is any indication, Kucia has a talent for making paint a carrier of feelings. Despite lapses, this ambitious solo show is worth seeing.