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Scott Kahn at Katharina Rich Perlow and Arthur Ross
Art in America, June-July, 2005 by David Cohen

Tenacity is the hallmark, alike, of Scott Kahn's paintings and his career. Two overlapping exhibitions last fall--of new work with his longtime New York dealer, Katharina Rich Perlow, and a retrospective stretching back to the mid-1980s at the Arthur Ross Gallery at the University of Pennsylvania (his alma mater)--demonstrated Kahn's longstanding, unwavering devotion to a labor-intensive mode of fantasy realism. The Penn exhibition, which was organized in conjunction with the University's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Center, suggested remarkably little change in vision or style over the last 20 years.

While he paints at a comfortable easel scale, with portraits, self-portraits, landscapes and interiors ranging typically from 2 to 6 feet in the larger dimension, Kahn's finely wrought style puts you in mind of a miniaturist. The pictures are fastidiously crafted in a nutty way that recalls naive art, especially in their disparity between attention to detail and economy of composition. Kahn seems at once to have a horror vacui, for which he compensates with microcosmic, allover, one-brushstroke-at-a-time execution, painting every blade of grass, or--almost, it seems every thread in the carpet. At the same time, he has an affection for the void, for such recurring motifs as endless seas, blanked out windows, fog and ambiguous passages of space.

Oasis (2001) typifies this split: it depicts a gray, evenly lit, orderly painter's studio, sparsely furnished with an empty easel, a work table, modern ergonomic chair and Persian rug, yet the room, with its front wall and ceiling exposed, is suspended against a choppy sea and stormy sky. In a low-octane Magrittean conceit, the studio's wall-to-wall windows are whitened out with a still fog that contrasts with the dark marinescape that should logically be seen through them.

This is Surrealism without a punch line, unpacking the unconscious without overt menace or psychosexual disruption. While many of the works exude a sense of autobiography, they have none of the intense, disturbing specificity of Mark Greenwold's paintings, to mention a contemporary who submits personal allegories to a comparably exacting execution; nor is there the lyrical sense of a world reinvented, as in Sarah McEneaney's personalist realism. When Kahn does admit us to the content of his dreams--in Interior (1996), a self-portrait in which he is spreadeagled in almost cruciform on his bed, the blanket wrinkling around his tense body like a matrix of veins--the objects paraded across his mental screen are, innocuously, tea cakes.

Only an occasional rabid dog in appropriately virulent red or a whirling doppelganger hints at a darker, if still safely archetypal, side of the artist's allegories of self. By and large, however, his vision seems altogether too charming and gentle to require a visionary style. But even if its tweeness is ultimately enervating, the prospect of an Ivy League-educated "outsider" remains endearing.

COPYRIGHT 2005 Brant Publications, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group

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