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Mono In Stereo 

Kuehni's vibrant prints turn up the volume

So sweetly exuberant are Margret Kuehni's playful, color-drenched, abstract monotypes that you wonder what would happen if, when she made them, she were deliriously happy rather than, as she says in her artist's statement, cautiously happy. Kuehni's "delight in putting color and form together" is contagious: Fragments, on view at Blue Pony Gallery through June 19, is a real spirit-lifter.

So you know... monotypes are made by rolling ink or paint on a flat plate, then manipulating it in some way, putting a piece of paper over it, and pulling the paper off. The result is a one-of-a-kind (hence "mono") work of art that can be further embellished. Kuehni, for instance, will repaint the plate, then reapply the paper, to produce layers and shadows of tones. One or two fainter prints may be pulled from the "ghost" left on the plate.

Kuehni likes the intimate, condensed format of this technique, especially the way the paper absorbs ink and the luminosity she achieves from layering.

"Color is most important in my work," she reveals. "With it, I construct the emotional content of a piece. Combined with pictorial writing, it conveys the mythical feeling of places and objects observed and recorded in my memory."

Even in a small, 10" x 10" print like "Green Earth," Kuehni packs a wallop with her palette. Her pigments are fresh and clear -- green as grass, red as apple, blue as the jewel in a crown. There is the sense that Kuehni instinctively knows which colors to apply to the plate and then when, exactly, to stop mixing them. Even the brown of "Primary Phenomenon," a primitive-looking textural work, is pure -- in other hands, it'd be muddy and dull. As with chemicals in a magic potion, Kuehni combines complementary colors such as red and green in perfect proportions for creating combustion. Or, as in the minimalist "Red Metal" I & II, they glow with a single essence. They are, simply, light-filled.

But there's more...

Integrated with the color forms are marks, the "pictorial writing" she mentioned that is sometimes added during the printing process, sometimes applied afterward to the print's surface. Some of them seem like ephemeral impulses, meaningless except to indicate a presence. Others are deliberate but gestural, made to define and express.

Kuehni may scribble on the prints with oil pastels, colored pencils or graphite. The scribbling is neither random nor inexpert, but confident and nuanced. She claims the Swiss artist Joan Klee, markmaker extraordinaire, as one of her inspirations (for color, she turns to Henri Matisse).

Gallery owner Mary Lou Sussman, herself a master monotypist, likes to scrutinize Kuehni's works to see if she can tell how the marks were made. In one, for instance, she recognizes amoebic shapes made by rubber bands. In another, scraps of paper were laid on the plate before the paint was applied, leaving white patches in the color field. Other textures and patterns, often made by found objects, are mysterious, says Sussman, which adds to the fun. The feeling is that this artist believes in experimenting, in letting her strong sensibilities and impeccable sense of composition give her imagination head.

Despite the radiance of these works, of the way they project outward, Kuehni says her motivation comes from "an inner perspective." Despite their flamboyance, they represent her attempt to "put the fragments of the world into a manageable aesthetic order." And despite this somber agenda, her work is full of humor, spontaneity and visceral pleasure. For example, ""Reading Rilke' makes me want to read Rilke," says Sussman, "even though I have only a vague notion of who he is."

"Four Seasons," a bouquet of frolicking hues, comes closest to being figurative. "Mindful of Yellow" is fairly monochromatic, with a bold stripe of red across the bottom like a single trumpet note amidst the flutes. Perhaps the darker "Sacred Place," with its deep purples, greens and blues, best reveals the inner source from which Kuehni draws her ideas.

Born in Germany, Kuehni had lived in Europe and other parts of the US before coming to Charlotte in the 1980s. She describes her artistic life as "an ongoing process, transferring emotional and intellectual experiences into realities on and below the surface."

Kuehni demurs a little when asked if those experiences are largely positive. "A little happiness," she laughs, "goes a long way."

Margret Kuehni's exhibit Fragments is showing through June 19 at the Blue Pony Gallery, 3202A North Davidson Street. Hours: 11am-5pm Tuesday-Saturday. For further information, call 704-334-9390.

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