by Matthew Metzger
Kay Hurley’s art has been, quite simply but very profoundly, an exploration of the beautiful. Luminous, tonal, unpeopled landscape has unabashedly been her exclusive “genre”. Her commitment to her art has been steadfast, second only to actually living life. Or more aptly put, perhaps, would be to say she has appropriately combined the two. She once turned down representation from a prominent New York gallery in part out of concern that it would distract her from raising her family, which she has done as a single mother by selling her art mainly on her own terms.
It’s a simplistic claim that beauty has been completely irrelevant in contemporary art, because it hasn’t. But it isn’t simplistic to say it’s been downgraded, maybe because discernment of beauty requires something like an increasingly elusive “taste”. Beauty and the landscape can easily digress into unintended kitsch; or worst yet, derivation. And the proliferation of kitsch and derivative works are a couple reasons, I believe, that the landscape as a genre is wrongly thought irrelevant. A critic, implying quite transparently the sentiment that landscape is hardly a valid means of expression in contemporary art, once asked Gerhard Richter why he painted landscapes. Richter’s deadpan response was that he felt like painting something beautiful. It’s an understatement to say that Richter has something great to add to art’s discourse, and part of his contribution is the reemerging role of beauty in general and the landscape in particular (beauty never really exited the postwar art stage but only hid in the nooks and crannies of irony and feigned nihilism). Kay Hurley’s work should be and is part of this discourse. And if the reader isn’t convinced of the worthiness of beauty as a subject, let’s not forget that one of the great Western philosophers (regarded so for better or worse), Immanuel Kant, wrote an entire book on the aesthetics of beauty and its cousin, the sublime, in his Critique of Judgment.
In Purely Pastels, Random Acts of Beauty, Hurley seems specifically to be getting at an aspect of beauty that’s largely ignored in Western aesthetics (but not, say, in a Japanese tearoom): the role of the fleeting moment, transience and the passing of time directly occasioned by nature itself. In From the Bedroom, we see subtle reds and oranges on a single tree, the apex of color in the fall and the accompanying melancholy of knowing that color will fade. But the beauty lies in this knowing. So does sadness. The relationship between beauty and sadness is, sadly, another topic for another time. In River Fog we see the decay of winter setting in, but not yet realized. This is how one paints the passage of time.
Pastel is an appropriate medium for this endeavor to capture transience. The chalk flakes off from the painting; an unintentional but inevitable gesture on the nature of imperfection. The flakes finally rest in equipoise at the bottom of the picture frame, like dust from a butterfly’s wings, as Wolf Kahn has said. Kahn was Hurley’s teacher and mentor. He is one of the great colorists, and clearly influenced Hurley in that regard. But Hurley’s paintings have a depth to them that adds to their elegant and fleeting mystery, in contrast to the intentional flatness of Kahn’s compositions (something he likely picked up from his own mentor, one of the great abstract expressionists, Hans Hoffman).
In Hurley’s pastels in Random Acts of Beauty, and also her larger oils, bold red, orange and yellow cadmiums miraculously become balanced and nuanced amongst, for example, purple fog. It’s as if she’s created harmony by combining these potentially disharmonious and decidedly unsubtle colors. They should not work together but somehow they do. This depth and harmony through the use of color is Hurley’s great contribution to landscape and colorist painting specifically, and the larger discourse on beauty in general. It should be regarded as such, rather than as “decorative” in the derogatory sense (but, as an aside, let us not forget that being decorative is one of the great compliments in Japanese art, even the avant-garde, probably because they haven’t elevated art above actually living life as Western aesthetics has done). Hurley’s work should also be cherished and enjoyed, and you can do so at her Fifth Street Gallery show. It runs until June 7.