When Chicago artist Kim Kopp moved to Port Townsend in 1993 to take a class in boat building, the experience left a lasting mark on her painting. Still a resident of Port Townsend, Kopp creates abstract works in which ships, currents, and nautical charts are a clear inspiration. Her current show on Capitol Hill also includes work from a particularly ambitious project, a giant calendar composed of one painting for each day of the year. Joining us with his review of the exhibition is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
Kopp’s actual paintings are small (floor tile size) and extremely soft-spoken, favoring a sort of minimalist abstraction based on very spare line work combined with a few simple geometrical shapes, executed in a style that hovers somewhere between painting and drawing. A few spots of brighter color shine against parchment-toned backgrounds; taken one at a time, the paintings hover perilously on the knife-edge between lyric subtlety and head-nodding monotony.
It’s true that the materials that are deployed in these panels is extensive, including graphite, dry pigment, gold leaf, correction tape, acrylic, ink and wax on layers of semi-transparent Japanese paper, with erasures and overlapping creating many games of peek-a-boo. But the effect of all these media in Kopp’s patient constructions isn’t necessarily as interesting as it sounds; layers of paper don’t approach the depth of layers in the work of an oil abstractionist like Darren Waterston, for example, and Kopp’s geometrical interactions are too low contrast to have much in the way of visual drama.
The calendar book, by presenting the paintings as concentrated groups, attains a weight and a sensuality that I miss in many of the individual paintings with their dry, thin surfaces and wan coloration. It’s fascinating, of course, to track the seasonal changes month by month, in their abstract interpretations, Sometimes we get the logic of the month’s imagery (June is lush and energetic; December spare and grey) and sometimes we don’t ( why the vivid yellow green of January?).
Kopp has wisely decided to treat the individual panels like elements in a meta-painting composed of the panels of the month as whole. This is clearest in the links between her favorite abstract element, a rowboat-from-above/leaf shape which dominates nearly every frame. In May, for example, dark versions of this ovoid shape create an interrupted circle the size of nearly half the month, linking 10 separate paintings. Smaller implied chains link several other days, with the leaf shape changing color from dark to light, blue, to yellow. Circles and squares, smaller and more variously colored, float below and occasionally above the leaves; it’s the endlessly repeated leaf forms, however, that we notice.
In the course of the year, the leaf form mutates: here split like a seed or crab claws (January) there stubby like a guitar pick (February), and finally blunt-ended like a boat (December). It’s almost always depicted in monochrome, and occasionally in outline (April, July, & August). What’s fascinating to me is how tenaciously Kopp sticks to her chosen motif through hundreds of paintings, a motif which on its own is not particularly elegant, attractive, or evocative. The fact that its depiction lacks color or texture doesn’t help much, either. But I have a soft spot for artistic obsession: clearly, this seed pod/claw/boat/wood clamp connects to something central for the artist, but what is it?
In trying to answer that question, I thought about the language in which Kopp has chosen to work, geometric abstraction. In fact, Kopp’s work is only superficially connected to the mainstream tradition of geometric abstract art, which stretches back to revolutionary Russia and includes later artists like Mondrian, Albers, Stella, and Kelly. One look at the venerable masterpieces of Russian Suprematism, or works like the recent paintings of local abstract painter Mary Henry, reveals how little these bold and graphic works have in common with the far more retiring and ephemeral pieces of Ms. Kopp.
The clearest precedent for what Kopp is doing seems to be in the world of charts, diagrams, and working drawings, filtered through a Zen sensibility. Along with Zen painters Kopp shares a belief in gospel of simplicity and the power of primal shapes; from the very Western world of scientific and map work she takes an intriguing variety of other elements – botanical drawings, star charts, grids, wave forms, map symbols, even random printed numbers.
I think the idea of map or chart is key here; the repeated shapes are links between the world of the internal and external, following a path that represents some sort of symbolic journey, both through the year and through the artist’s own experience.
But the scientific and technical background of these works is also a key to their greatest weakness. By relying too much on intellectual content and not enough on visual, Kopp deprives the viewer of the full richness of her vision, and the enjoyment of her inventions. What would happen if she were to branch out a bit and attempt to work out some of her ideas in oil or encaustic? To build up a richer surface in texture and physicality than that available with her current materials? Clearly, Kopp has the energy to pursue her visions, even to the point of obsession. I’d like to see what might happen if she was to adapt a pictorial form more expressive of the richness and tenacity of her ideas.