I get very irritated when I hear people say there are no new ideas, as though we’ve crested our cultural apex.
Since I don’t own a single jet pack, I don’t see how this is possible.
Yet the critical battle cry of my generation—“this is the new that”—implies that even our innovations are nothing more than repackaging. It also demotes the replaced (that) as out of style.
David Kapp’s exhibition at Zane Bennett Contemporary Art, New York Crowds, embraces, sans irony, the influence of mid-20th century American painting so sincerely it’s hard not to admire the artist’s devotion.
As the title suggests, Kapp’s work examines the populated streets of America’s most crowded city. From a studio window in Manhattan, Kapp watches his fellow humans move in and out of view like organic swarms of insects, painting them with great regularity over the years.
The bird’s-eye view Kapp employs in the majority of his works effectively reduces the people to simple shapes and smears of bright colors. His use of large brushstrokes renders little of the detail that one would detect with his or her own eye.
The textured surfaces render forms simply, confidently and with great economy. The effect kicks at the line between abstraction and representation.
However, the resultant distance created between the viewer and the subject invites little analysis about New York and its denizens; I suspect this is an accurate depiction of the artist’s mind-set as well. One could inject a taste of existentialism while peering into the faceless constellations, but the chromatic palette and airiness of the streetscapes trump a worldview steeped in negativity. Kapp’s primary focus seems to be creating colorful compositions of light and shadow.
Of course, Kapp has two clear forerunners. The amount of paint, especially the bright blues that stand in for darks, reminds me of Wayne Thiebaud’s masterful images of desserts seen through storefronts and glass-top counters. In particular, Thiebaud’s long blue shadow is cast over Kapp’s lithographs, which are among the oldest works in the show. The forms in these works retain greater structural integrity than his more recent work.
The more overt influence over Kapp’s compositions and subject matter is Richard Diebenkorn, whose depictions of cities and, in particular, intersections lend themselves well to the geometric, hard edges of his pure abstractions. The aesthetics and mathematics of urban planning viewed from a distance provide a rigid framework on which Diebenkorn hangs his stark, flat palettes. The trick is echoed by Kapp in washy planes of concrete and flat paths of pedestrians.
Granted, Kapp’s work differs in his subject matter, as well as in his penchant for diagonal lines. But the similarities to his predecessors far outweigh the differences, and this undermines Kapp’s ability.
While in the gallery, I struck up a conversation with a man behind the counter, inquiring about Kapp’s process. During the exchange, he mentioned that the artist’s wife was of a painting pedigree. Curious, I asked to which painters Kapp was related.
Though I was asking about literal blood relation, he replied: “A lot of people say Thiebaud and Diebenkorn.”
It is understandable that a working painter will draw comparisons to those who came before. However, if my immediate reaction is the stock answer regarding years of work, it might be time to rethink one’s legacy.
After all, why would an artist want the reaction to his life’s work to be that of a comparison? Kapp may hope to be called the new Diebenkorn, but that would imply that Diebenkorn had been replaced, and the long memory of art history doesn’t always work that way.
New York Crowds
Through Oct. 17
Zane Bennett Contemporary Art
435 S. Guadalupe St.