Until quite recently, Skagit Vallery painter Ed Kamuda lived in a rustic cabin without electricity or running water in the small town of Bow . Perhaps not coincidentally, a cabin features prominently in many of the works in his current show at the Lisa Harris Gallery, but its simple form appears tiny and insignificant in comparison to trees, skies, and mountains of the surrounding landscape. KUOW art critic Gary Faigin joins us to discuss the work of this enigmatic Northwest painter.
The current Ed Kamuda show at Lisa Harris is a case in point, inspired as it is by the natural world of forest, field, sea, and sky. Drawing on the work of modernists like Joan Miro and Paul Klee, reminiscent in subject matter and romantic mood to the Northwest mystics, and simplified and stripped down in style like aboriginal art, Kamuda’s diminutive paintings are a continuation of an artistic conversation started some time ago, when European artists first turned to the work of children and indigenous artists as an alternative to reigning academic conventions.
The comparison to Klee is particularly apt, as Kamuda shares with Klee a love of the language of shape and symbol, creating whimsical visual statements which connect us to an internal and highly personal world, rather than the everyday world of outward appearances. “Art does not reproduce the visible, “wrote Klee, “it makes visible.” Klee also speaks of “taking a line for a walk”, and his later work is often stripped down to heavily worked lines and spare, hieroglyphic symbols, like that of Kamuda. But Klee has a vastly wider range of styles and subjects than Kamuda, and his palette is much more varied.
Kamuda limits himself to a relative handful of subjects and simple color relationships. Many of the pictures in the current show are dominated by flat primary colors, or muted juxtapositions of grey, black, red, and yellow. Most of the paintings have a distinctly autumnal or winter feeling. Nearly all the pictures include a seriously generic house shape, made up of the usual five straight lines with a dot for a window, placed below a stage-like setting of iconic trees, hills, and sky. What gives these stark images punch is strong composition, the naïve conviction with which they are painted, and the layered, carefully worked up texture of the paint itself.
The ridged, flaked and pasty surface reminded me of thick crayon drawings, but here the wax is a finishing touch, added as a varnish once many layers of oil paint have been applied in small touches with a palette knife. Each carefully outlined object has its own set of paint textures, as though it was painted separately. The several rather large gouache paintings in the show, representing a new departure for the artist, seem to me to be more transitional in style, the medium one with which the artist is still finding his way.
The common thread in all of these pictures is the artist’s experience of the landscape recollected or reconstructed in a sort of reverie, where a set of personal symbols is used like talismans to connect the particulars of experience – a certain tree on a certain day – to something more universal and spiritual, although what that something is exactly isn’t quite clear. A reverential and semi-mystical attitude towards nature links Kamuda to the Northwest artists of the storied past, but it also sets him at some odds to much of the more conflicted, nuanced work of many present-day artists, who see the landscape as more a battleground than a shrine, and are more likely to reference clearcuts and species displacement than to put halos around the moon and stars.
The supernatural experience recorded in these paintings is a solitary one indeed; the house is always alone, lacking accompaniments like a road, a figure, or even a fence. But the house is more than a symbol; it’s also the source from which the visions depicted in the paintings arise. In the painting Winter Dreams 05, for example, a crude chain of stick-figure trees, surrounding an expanse of sun and sky, emerges like a thought balloon from the cabin shape. In "Spring Beginnings," the cabin gives rise to an enormous shimmering red cloud; in "Cabin and Tree," the cabin is merely a small intrusion in the trunk of a massive, vaguely humanoid tree; and in another image – one of the strongest in the show - a stream of identical cabins flows skyward through a scarlet trunk like blood cells in a planetary artery, heading for a celestial heart. As often happens with such personal work, certain images are too encoded for us to fully appreciate. I’m puzzled by the diagrammatic paintings which feature the generic house form connected to a grid-like network of lines and non-descript orb shapes, and I’m equally unable to decipher the powerful night scene where a cabin is surrounded by a swarm of pale mandorlas, representing either religious symbols (as used in older Christian art) or sexual (female genitalia) or both. Perhaps nature is here being seen as an entryway to alternative realities, exalted states of being.
Ultimately, I don’t think these paintings are really landscapes at all. Though they superficially treat of natural forms, they seem to me primarily portraits of states of mind, which is why the settings (and the houses) seems so generic, so little tied to the specifics of the Northwest, aside from the grey light. There’s an unevenness to his work, which works best when vivid color and dramatic compositions fire his images with visual energy, but is at its weakest when his language becomes too pared down, his vocabulary too limited. Kamuda, in depicting his private cosmology, is a latter-day toiler in the tradition of oddball visionaries like Alfred Pinkham Ryder and William Blake, and like them, he draws us into his hermetic world when the decorative power of his creations overcome their strangeness.