“An Intuitive View” at David McKee Gallery

Guest in the House 1957Gabriel Kohn, Guest In The House (1957), wood, 50″ x 21″ x 11-1/2″; courtesy David McKee Gallery

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Gabriel Kohn occupies a quizzical, almost willfully marginal patch of artistic terrain. The artist died three decades ago, but I’d never heard his name prior to coming across four of his pieces in An Intuitive View, a somewhat perfunctory array of sculpture culled from the storage lockers at the McKee Gallery. Yet Kohn fairly steals the show from such notable competition as Martin Puryear and John Duff, among others.

Certainly, the novelty of the work makes an impression. The sculpture incorporates equal parts Constructivism and folk art, with less obvious references to Surrealism’s dreamlike confabulations. If Mark di Suvero, H.C. Westermann and Meret Oppenheim—or, at least, her furry teacup—could have had a love child, it would have been Kohn. This contradictory pedigree all but ensures that any underlying heroic impulse left over from High Modernist aspiration is undercut by a streak of absurdist humor and a stubborn individuality.

Carved and carpentered from wood, the pieces evince a hearty, roughhewn sense of craft. “Finish” was anathema to Kohn’s earthy aesthetic; the woodshop, not the showroom, determined the sculptural approach. So while due diligence is paid to the shaping and assembly of materials, an unkempt, conversational style prevails. Are you familiar with the archetypal image of the old bluesman on the porch of a shotgun shack, musing and strumming his guitar? Kohn’s work evokes a similar feel.

The sculptures are never truly abstract. Each of them retains forceful but by no means constraining allusions, whether they be to classical sculpture, furniture or the animal kingdom. Ventura VIII (1969), a beautifully fashioned object that is part puzzle and part devotional object, is Kohn at his most hermetic. He’s at his most engaging in Owl (1954), a droll effigy shaped from the trunk of a tree and propped up on three precisely set pegs. In it, Kohn simultaneously distills and magnifies everything that is enigmatic and ungainly about the bird. I wonder if there’s anything else as good to be found in the oeuvre. More importantly, will McKee take the hint?

© 2011 Mario Naves

Originally published in the October 16, 2005 edition of The New York Observer.

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