In its best moments, Romantic Nature, a retrospective exhibit the work of Martin Kline at the New Britain Museum of American Art, is a glorious thing, a stunning monument to the power of images to stir transcendent experience. A work like “Axis Mundi,” for instance, is an apparition — a silent sentinel standing in a pool of light. A quiet homage to the poetic convergence of heaven and earth constructed in cedar and encrusted with beeswax, it marks a juncture between so-tactile reality and the sublime.
The majority of Kline’s images are painting-like, though they are mounted on what appears to be luan plywood housed in deep boxes, like window framing. At once immutable and dynamic, many of these images vibrate in saturated, pure color (yellow, red, pink) or exult in the leaden patina of metallic pigments. The dominant material is encaustic, a medium that employs pure pigment suspended in translucent, liquefied wax. Most of these works operate by directional flow constrained by the parameters of their plywood supports.
Kline’s mastery of the medium is remarkable, but also inscrutable. How does he persuade these legions of lesions to circle (like a chrysanthemum blossom in “Cosmos”), or spin (like a pinwheel in “Randozzo”), or gravitate to the edges of an oval support (like a tatted doily in “Bride of Frankenstein”)? The waxy accretions, resembling hoar frost, crinkle and radiate according to the minimalist bidding of their conductor.
It is this complex contradiction of terms that gives this work its power: wood and wax, color or its absence, the graphic suggestion of movement — as well as the evidence (drips, spatters, smears, puddles) of its making — suggest a rich dialogue, Zen-like in its materiality, between hand and eye, plan and happenstance. “Great Expectations” (2002), for instance, strikes the viewer with the awesome, cosmic impact of a comet — trailing a petrified waterfall of waxen “sparks” — that not only shoots upward, but leaves its messy, drizzled footprint on the sill of the picture frame.
The issue with the exhibition as a whole, however, is sensory overload — and perhaps a bit too much simplistic explanation in the wall text (the titles — not to mention the forms themselves — are largely clue enough as to influences; do we need to be told that he is influenced by nature?). Most simply, the show needs considerable pruning. There are some gorgeous early works, “The Tempest,” for instance, which does not use encaustic, but whose puddled, luscious color sense, disciplined by a pencil-etched grid and sparkled with “leaks” of white canvas, is a wonderful foreshadowing of the brilliant works to come. But how much of the previous work is required, to tell the story? To have so many lesser works, experiments, and false starts confuses the point and diminishes the effect. Kline’s best works are spectacular, grand, sublime: Zen-like testaments to the power of pure form to transform experience. But here, crowded tooth by jowl, it is hard to take them in. The problem is the miss-match of quiet, contemplative forms set amidst the cacophony of a crowded convention of life’s work.
Martin Kline: Romantic Nature, Ends June 17, New Britain Museum of American Art, 56 Lexington St., New Britain, (860) 229-0257, nbmaa.org.
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