Consider Brad Kunkle. A painter in his mid-thirties, in high demand on the figurative end of the collector spectrum. Gilded Wilderness, his second solo show at Arcadia Gallery in Soho, New York, sold out before the end of its opening on April 21. His oil-painted figures swim in fields of gold and silver leaf.
The Gilded Wilderness, oil with gold and silver leaf, 42"x80"
Kunkle is one of the most adept leafers working today. His leaf is staggeringly gorgeous: applied with such expert skill that it has become, for him, an expressive medium. He has gone far beyond the plodding square-beside-square you may know from your great-aunt's oversized picture frames. His rectilinear chunks of leaf overlap in wild, irregular mosaics. He dabs tiny fragments of leaf to create images of actual leaves. He paints on top of his leaf, varying its reflectivity, rendering everything from landscapes to graphic patterns on his shimmering ground.
This quality is not an unqualified virtue. Rather, it is a steep challenge. Leaf done beautifully aches to dissolve into treacly sweetness. It is beauty as our lizard brains understand beauty: the cheap appeal of shiny things, depthless. Kunkle mastered the application of leaf several years ago, not long after becoming extremely proficient at painting the figure.
These are both powerful tools, the leaf and the figure. For the better part of the 20th century, notable artists developed a personal vision first, and tools later, if ever. Kunkle belongs to a faction of young artists who take craft seriously, and develop tools first. This faction is afflicted with love of its tools; many scoff at the proposition that vision is a separate and prior concept. Kunkle does not. Since 2009, he has rotated his approach, recognizing that gaining a skill is not so much as knowing what to do with it.
Kunkle's initial encounter with leaf drew him to Klimt. But without Klimt's essential erotomania, Kunkle was left with compositions aimlessly overpopulated by gusts of leaves, art nouveau swirls, and skinny chicks. He has abandoned much of that approach, winnowing out the things it turned out were personal to him: a genuinely odd sense of graphic design, the leaf, and the figures. Increasingly, the figures are not ciphers but people. Consider Bird of Paradise:
Bird of Paradise, oil with gold and silver leaf, 30"x40"
This is far removed from Klimt. Generically, there is still a similarity, but the meticulously controlled parade of feather-eyes, and the timbre of the face, belong to Kunkle, not his predecessor. As accomplished as this is, the smallish Her Own Field represents a more complete departure from the Klimtian paradigm:
Her Own Field, oil with gold and silver leaf, 16"x20"
The figure makes the painting. In deference to the figure, the composition is subdued. It partakes of Kunkle's sense of organic shape, evoked in the sumptuous line of golden field against golden sky. But the elements are spare, the detail low, and the eye is drawn to the face and the emotions which play out upon it. Although Kunkle has been good at painting people for a while, he moves here beyond mimesis of the physical and into the ambiguous realm of psychology.
These paintings strike me as being among Kunkle's first mature paintings. They have mass and personal investment. He acknowledges a debt to the past while moving forward on his own. There is some obvious Wyeth to Her Own Field. There is a touch of Diebenkorn. In the two pieces, and in the similarly simplified Untitled Study, there is a feeling of the other great pole of leafed painting: the medieval ikons.
Untitled Study, oil with gold and silver leaf, 8"x8.5"
The ikons had an unadorned sincerity to them, based in the childlike equation of the figures being precious religiously, and the metal being precious monetarily. There are few statements simpler than, "I love you most, so I'll give you the best thing I have." This unblushing devotion illuminates the ikons. Kunkle's new paintings do not look like the ikons, but they share the unblushing devotion, and the metal. Here, Kunkle has made his mastery of metal work for him as an artist. It does not glitter. It glows.
Gilded Wilderness, at Arcadia Gallery, 51 Greene St., New York, NY,
10013, until May 5
Brad Kunkle: www.bradkunkle.com