Critical Reflections: Kevin Tolman: Improvisational Journeys

Karan Ruhlen Gallery<br /> 225 Canyon Road, Santa Fe

Date July 31, 2008 at 10:00 PM

Publication THE magazine

Categories Performing Arts


Hovering somewhere between fantasy and reality, Kevin Tolman's rich yet subdued semi-abstract paintings evoke fleeting impressions of the natural and supernatural worlds. Tolman's new and recent works on view at Karan Ruhlen Gallery are, as the title of the show implies, a collection of moments from journeys into places-both real and imagined-located in the past, present, and future.

Totemic forms, exaggerated ellipses and orbs, sinewy calligraphic lines, bold staccato marks, and haphazard drips of paint pervade Tolman's variegated canvases. Seasong/Sideways is emblematic of the distinctive types of marks and worked-up surfaces that Tolman employs to render impressions of imperceptible and unknown locales. In this large-scale canvas, a butter-colored elliptical form resembling the shape of a teardrop, or abstractly a whale, emerges from the left-hand side of the canvas. It lingers near the center of the composition, seemingly floating above barely visible shapes that have been obscured through dense layers of light blue-green paint. A strange, ochre-colored, tentacle-like form extending inward toward the large yellowish mass connects to a black circular shape from which bits of color seem to spew forth like drops of water coming out of a showerhead or faucet.

Set amidst a sea of muted colors, the static, biomorphic forms are enlivened by Tolman's tempered use of line, etched marks, and paint, which he pours, drips, or flicks onto the canvas. He similarly enhances the vitality of the painting by adding bold patches of neon orange here and there throughout the composition that contrast nicely with the earth-tone hues that tend to dominate his palette. The lack of modeling to the forms emphasizes the flatness of the canvas-a key tenet of modern art critic Clement Greenberg's formalism, which hailed abstraction as the purest form of art. Paradoxically, Tolman muddies the water between form and content-his paintings are neither purely abstract nor wholly representational-and it's hard to avoid the thought that the Seasong/Sideways may just be a larger-than-life painterly impression of the goings-on of life inside a Petri dish. Tolman is happy, of course, to leave this mystery unresolved.

While Tolman's work draws on elements from the physical landscape that surrounds him, much of it speaks to the constructs of the metaphysical world, such as time, being, or substance. And though stylistically Tolman's work might be more closely linked with Abstract Expressionist painters, his use of symbols and calligraphic line speaks more directly to earlier avant-garde painters such as Paul Klee and Joan MirĂ³, whose works on paper and canvases were filled with pictographs and hieratic forms, symbols derived from the natural world. Like Klee and MirĂ³ before him, Tolman creates images of enchanted worlds that we do not fully recognize but ultimately wish to inhabit.