Life History

Brian Novatny, Richard Knight and Kit Keith use their love of everyday objects to create warm, engaging art

May 10, 2000 at 4:00 am

Elliot Smith Contemporary Art, through May 20

William Shearburn Fine Art, through May 20

Something serendipitous is happening in the Central West End: The three artists currently showing at the Elliot Smith and William Shearburn galleries all concentrate on banalities, those less-than-spectacular aspects of life that take the form of everyday objects -- like wallpaper or socks -- or dusty memories of a distant, shabby past. But Brian Novatny, Richard Knight and Kit Keith all have a genuine fondness for these unassuming subjects, and it lends their works a level of warmth and interest that would be lacking in the hands of lesser artists.

Brian Novatny's paintings of stolid figures in abstracted, almost empty interior spaces are currently quite hot. Novatny is based in New York City but shows his works throughout the country and was recently reviewed in Art in America; his work is currently being shown at Elliot Smith, where he made his St. Louis debut in 1998. This show features Novatny's recent paintings, which are generally brighter in tone and more delicate in execution than his earlier works, which featured ponderous interiors inhabited by Léger-like figures floating in a surrealist torpor.

It's as if someone turned on the light in these new interiors, allowing us to see clearly (but not necessarily to understand) what's going on inside. Bulky figures of men and women interact in peculiar ways with their interiors -- they dance, or pose, or toss swatches of brilliantly patterned fabric against backdrops of flat color or wild wallpaper. Poker-faced, the figures refuse to let us in on the story. Narrative is clearly not the point here.

Novatny arranges these opaque stage sets to maximize the interest in the formal qualities of the paintings. His figures suggest mass and bulk but are painted with a stubborn flatness. In fact, flatness is everywhere here: Shadows are rarely cast in these spaces, and walls and floors parallel the verticality of the picture plane. Novatny revels in capturing the insistent flatness in tile, fabric and wallpaper patterns. He also clearly enjoys setting meticulously rendered patterns against color fields that are applied in a more gestural, even unfinished, manner.

Novatny's works, mostly oil on panel, are small and unassuming in scale and reveal a keen awareness of art history. Within these flattened, abstracted spaces, Novatny sets down figures that clearly derive from such early and pre-Renaissance painters as Fra Angelico. Their faces are rendered with a delicate linearity that contrasts the bulky weight of their bodies (in fact, the faces are rendered in watercolor, not oil, and are painted with a single-hair brush).

These works are brilliant, but they are upstaged by a few pieces in which furniture takes centerstage: In "Red Floral Couch," "Green Chair" and "Floral Patterned and Striped Chairs," furniture pieces float in these anonymous interiors and exhibit every bit as much character as the figures in other paintings. Novatny elevates Grandma's living-room ensemble to the status of icon. It's a humorous, knowing and oddly sweet gesture that runs through all of his recent paintings on view here.

Also at Elliot Smith, paintings by Richard Knight subject ordinary objects to extraordinary artistic scrutiny. His moderately scaled oil paintings on canvas focus on gloves, envelopes, combs, pockets and the like. These things appear as linear outlines, around which the paint is worked, reworked and worked again. In one sense, the objects provide a mere structural frame around which Knight concentrates formidable artistic energy.

In the process, though, Knight never loses sight of the thing. But Knight is not just painting pictures of things. His works are thorough analyses of objects, not direct observations of them. Knight begins his working process by selecting a simple object, making a sculptural version of it, and then drawing and painting those three-dimensional pieces on canvas or board. This multistep process allows him to thoroughly know the objects, inside and out, and to concentrate on their "thingness," in the manner of poets like Wallace Stevens and Rainer Maria Rilke.

Some of these paintings succeed where others don't. "Metal Bucket" and "Yellow Socks" achieve the perfect equilibrium between the object and the flat, painted analysis of it; in "Rope" and "Links," the paint strays too far from the object, suggesting abstract spatial qualities that are less interesting in this context. More fun are the small paintings, depicting objects like cupcakes, numbers and cups. These sweet paintings on board are objects unto themselves, symbolic corollaries to the things depicted. It will be interesting to see where Knight takes his object analysis next.

Kit Keith takes a very different approach to the objects of everyday life. She gathers found materials, culled from Dumpsters, old ledgers, Goodwill and antique stores, and adds to them her stylized portraits and handwritten texts. The result is a transformation: The found objects, already laden with their own histories, become players in the dusty, nostalgic world of faux memory Keith creates. It's a kind of sad, seamy world, circa 1940, and though the world is a fiction, it is based solidly in cultural fact, and so it contains the realism of memories that aren't your own but almost could be. The effect is remarkable.

Keith has shown regularly in St. Louis since relocating here, so her works will be familiar to local gallery-goers. Nonetheless, this show is a must-see -- Keith is moving to New York in June, and this may be one of her last exhibits here for a while. William Shearburn has organized a miniretrospective of Keith's works that includes a sample of almost everything the artist has done, from the early rusty metallic books to the more recent works on paper to the larger paintings done on steel office-desk components. The show is mounted simply but beautifully, a fitting tribute to Keith's career and unbounded imagination.

Of the newer works, Keith's portrait series stand out. Wallflowers features faces of women -- those women of the 1940s, with their high foreheads and iron-clad hairstyles -- layered over sad wallpaper samples. In another series of portraits, women's faces are painted on sheets of paper from the Pulitzer Publishing Co. ledger and juxtaposed with little pictures from magazines and old cookbooks (the kind that were published back when grease was a food group). "Gertrude" is paired with a picture of roses in a vase; the "Baked Bean Luncheon" lady looks like a waitress waiting to be discovered by a Hollywood scout.

A whole selection of Keith's fabulous nude-pinup images are among the works here, including the nudies painted over prints of cute kittens. Keith's works featuring men are equally interesting -- they are hunched over, wearing trench coats and hats, work-worn and weary. They have a Julius Knipl feel to them, as if they are being phased out of usefulness and disappearing from history.

This is where Keith is at her best: bringing to life fictional fragments of a lost cultural history. There were people who lived these stories, or versions of them; Keith revives lives and experiences and cultural codes that have all but disappeared. Her paintings of women on steel desk surfaces are especially evocative, with echoes of Raphael Soyer's or Edward Hopper's office girls at work in the Depression-era big city. Keith's stories may be fiction, but they reveal realities of a lost time. And knowing that Keith is leaving St. Louis just adds another layer of meaning and melancholy to these works.