Hurry Up To See Kari Krakow's Cafe Exhibit ASAP ... Then Go Slowly Through the Works
It’s always a joy to find good art in a coffee shop or similar informal venue.
And, while I’ve been accused of showing favoritism towards abstract painting, a visit to one of Ithaca’s less storied art venues more often turns up abstraction that’s mediocre at best (Of course we get bad art of all sorts. But abstract expressionism in particular seems to bring out the worst in some artists—because it’s hard to do well, but more particularly because it appeals to a sort of naïve romanticism that has a strong purchase in our local culture. Half a century from being cutting-edge, the style still attracts bohemian posturing).
Currently -- and through the end of the month -- Gimme! Coffee on State Street -- is showing a generous collection of abstract expressionist canvases by local painter Kari Krakow. Painted mostly in acrylic, nearly all of these are several feet tall, commanding their upright format.
Particularly striking is the way Krakow works the paint. Rather than building up the sort of exaggerated impasto one expects from this sort of painting, she uses thin background stains and pulverizes her thicker colors into a sort of unified surface that escapes being “muddy” in the pejorative sense.
One long wall in Gimme!’s main seating area features “pure” abstractions while the opposite one features paintings centering on a flower motif. I’ll focus on the former, which are generally more interesting.
Bent echoes the construction of her florals with clouds and flecks of bright green and red accenting a black base. As elsewhere, the “background” is painted thinly. Mardi Gras recalls the work of Willem De Kooning with it’s gravity defying explosion of white; pale blue and purple; turquoise; and thin, ink-like black and orange. For You is closer to Cy Twombly, a more contemporary painter who died a few years ago. It too feels floral, with blobs of purplish red punctuating a field of pink, Indian yellow—and hair-like strokes of silvery gray—seemingly growing from the flat white background. (The piece also suggests an affinity to drawing and to the work of great local abstractionist Syau-Cheng Lai.)
On a quick glance, Krakow’s flower paintings appear to flirt with a sort of ingratiating kitsch. Abstraction is tough, or so the reasoning goes—lets make it more accessible by giving the viewer something to hold on to. And what could be sweeter than a flower?
But a slower look reveals an intelligence behind their layering of paint and image. Pieces like her Bouquet canvases aim for a Matissean sensual rigor with flowers and vase standing out crisply, portrait-like, from intricately worked abstract backgrounds.
Ariel’s World, displayed alongside these, is less literal. The effusively colored piece suggests a merging of sky and earth with scattered red blossoms like those in For You—perhaps poppies.
Painted in oil and hung by itself, After the Rain is the closest here to a traditional landscape with two “trees” near the top forming a sort of sawtooth with the blue sky. Below the blossoms and leaves have been worked with a hallucinatory vigor. The color is less ingratiating, less clean—seemingly a result of change of medium.
I may be succumbing here to local boosterism, potentially a fatal disease for the serious art critic. But I find that the best of these canvases compare favorably with the most up-to-date recent paintings currently on-view at Cornell’s Johnson Museum. Which goes to show that some of Ithaca’s unsung artists have the means to trump what too often falls into the trendy and tendentious.
Barbs aside, this is a fine show in a sympathetic setting—among other things, these paintings look good hanging on the wall here.
Editor's Note: Arthur Whitman is one of the few brave souls with a refined sensibilite and an art background of high critical acumen willing enough to shill for pennies to have his raw thoughts about local art and exhibits expressed to the public. We applaud his courage, while, we put our best defenders on Orange Alert for attacks from the offended.