Like Marlene Dumas, Pat Kagan once felt considerable guilt about having grown up as a white South African during the apartheid era. However, unlike her well known fellow countrywoman, the experience did not have a perverse effect on her art. Although she immigrated to the United States and settled with her family in Maryland in 1977, Kagan says, “What remains in me of Africa is the vision of bold colors and clear skies saturated with an almost unbelievable blue.”
Those colors inform Kagan’s lyrical semiabstract landscapes in watercolor, with their ethereal, almost achingly nostalgic sense of transcendence. But Kagan asserts that her real breakthrough occurred in the bold gestural abstractions in her show, “Quintessential Color” on view at Agora Gallery, 530 West 25th Street, from March 21 through April 10 (reception Thursday, March 26, from 6 to 8pm).
Where her watercolors are soft and delicate, these abstractions in oil and Rustoleum are bold and energetic in a manner akin to Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. Indeed, while Kagan’s forms have a sensual fluidity that can recall those of the former painter, her choice of black as the dominant color recall the latter one. However, she also adds small areas of visceral red to her mostly monochromatic compositions on gessoed paper or canvas, the whiteness of which sets off their gestural qualities most dramatically.
Although Kagan made the first of these paintings days before her pregnant daughter hemorrhaged and was threatened with a miscarriage, she would later see it as prophetic, since at the time the red paint, as she applied it, reminded her of blood. The crisis caused her to continue the series, which she now began to think of as being “related to abnormalities of the uterus.”
”Because I see the uterus as a utilitarian container, the vessel in which the fetus is carried,” the artist elaborates, “it was natural to employ Rustoleum, a utilitarian, oil-based paint that is commonly used to paint metal outdoor furniture in order to protect it from rust. This paint also lends itself to the gestural, spontaneous strokes that are a direct manifestation of my gut-level, emotional response to my daughter’s pregnancy, and to the intense, primitive bond that exists between all women who experience the wonder of creating new life.”
What makes Kagan’s perception on this score doubly profound is that, although some very talented women were among the Abstract Expressionists who initially popularized this manner of gestural painting, most of them never really got due recognition because it was thought of as a male movement. Alternately called “action painting,” with all the machismo the term implies, its very athleticism seemed to contradict feminine stereotypes so prevalent in 40s and 50s, when Abstract Expressionism emerged as the first truly original American art movement. Some of those stereotypes still linger to this day. However, Kagan’s “Uterus Paintings,” as she refers to them, make the important point that childbirth can often be one of the bloodiest adventures of all.
But even more relevant is the fact that Pat Kagan’s new paintings, with their sensual, muscularly swerving and swirling shapes, are powerful works that ultimately transcend gender considerations and will surely endure for their purely aesthetic qualities.
¬¬ Maureen Flynn
Image Credits: Conception, Oil& Rustoleum on Canvas, 96" x 48"
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