Shirley Kaneda
Soft Freeze


I have never met Shirley Kaneda.

As I write, I have no idea even what she looks like. I have never heard her voice on the phone. We have only exchanged the most perfunctory emails. I know she lives in Manhattan but I have never visited, nor even seen a photograph of her studio.

The only window I have into the artist is my experience of her paintings. This is a first for me. I am usually familiar with the contemporary artists who show at Annandale. But in this case, the paintings have so entirely caught my imagination I am delighted to have the opportunity to show them without any of the usual personal contact that leads up to an exhibition.

Shirley Kaneda?s upcoming visit to Australia promises to be a fascinating experience for me. I am looking forward to it because I am immensely curious about a person who makes such beautiful and beguiling art. Of course, it may be that, even after her visit, there will still be no overt connection between her personality and her work. I have the strong sense that in Kaneda?s case the work is relatively ego free and the paintings exist on their own merit and in their own right. The final results in the paintings seem to be independent of the person. She has painted them, but once they go out in the world she has apparently let go of the interpretation. They are platforms for me to make of, as I will. There are few clues as to what the artist may want me to think or feel. I imagine she likes it that way.

The most immediately striking characteristic of a painting by Shirley Kaneda is the graphic impact of the colour. The juxtapositions of purple and orange, pink, lilac or apple green and turbid yellows are a feast for the eye. The colours sometimes seem sassy but are in oil despite the muted tones that evoke pastel. Some otherworldly screen saver comes to mind.

Two things are worth noting at this juncture: the paintings derive to some degree from photoshop manipulations of scanned watercolours, and secondly, the works are strikingly ambiguous. The titles of works in this exhibition such as ?Blissful Melancholy or ?Disciplined Chaos? bear this out. These titles are oxymoronic. In Kaneda?s hands there may be muted tones but the juxtapositions and the colour-relations are riotous. Virtually all colour exists somewhere in nature but Kaneda arrives at her unique hues by computers, so her colour sense is achieved from a mental and emotional activation rather than from copying nature.

There is something measured and cerebral about her work that does not allow the eye to rest. Flatness versus depth, spaces insinuated but not achieved, the feel of a bouquet of flowers versus a computer screen, biomorphic shapes reminiscent of Miro versus an abstract explosion perhaps originating in the pop art colour and imagery of James Rosenquist or Frank Stella. Given these energetic tensions, it is remarkable what an overall calming influence the paintings evoke.

Shirley Kaneda was born in Korea, raised in Japan and has spent her adult life in New York City. She is an Associate Professor at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and presumably well tuned to the currents and movements in contemporary art. She is obviously well aware of her place in the continuum of painting and the more advanced theoretical discourses, which abound in the New York art world. Perhaps informed by her eastern background however, there appears also to be a spiritual element, an almost Zen-like quality to her work that belies the theoretical and structural continuum in which she plays a part.

The three basic criteria of the Japanese tea ceremony ? simplicity, irregularity, and the ephemeral -- come to mind for me when I look at a Kaneda painting. Her work is not crowded with unnecessary information. It is irregular in form and it courts the ephemeral by not allowing us to fix too easily our understanding or interpretation. Looking at her work is a series of moments captured and the final emotion evoked in the viewer is a culmination of those moments ? an aesthetic memory if you will. The eye wanders over the surface while the mind considers the propositions, but in the end the overall image dances just out of reach and is stored in the memory for another look ? another mood - another day.

The paintings have an impact that is over-all: no one element or passage holds sway over another. However, the clusters of forms are independent, seeming to share a space but unaware of each other?s presence. It is only the viewer that can see the entire picture and Kaneda invites us to do just that ? construct our own vision from the disparate elements, contrasts and ambiguities. The titles, surface contrasts and colours all jockey for position, yet sit as calmly together as a carefully and sensuously constructed flower arrangement.

There is a strong intellectual bent to her work, and specific cultural references (computer screens, for example) the paintings are not only ideas. They look easy to paint but are clearly laborious and time-consuming. They have at first glance the consistency of silk screens or even machine generated patterns, but the surfaces are full of contrasting textures setting each other into relief. There is a sense that, finally, we are viewing the residue of a (albeit measured) performance. There is a degree of improvisation but they are not expressionistic. They just exist. Kaneda manages to remove her ego from the final result and Frank Stella?s famous adage that; ?what you see is what you see? comes to mind. Certainly, there is little given away about the artist. Nor is there any overt political agenda. This is not an artist who wears her emotions on her sleeve. The only thing that one may be sure of is that it is an oeuvre that has been carefully and painstakingly constructed with reverence ? quality abounds.

Another writer has noted that Kaneda uses one of the oldest human technologies ? painting, to describe one of the newest ? the computer. The internet is more and more our interface with the world and - for better or worse - even with each other. The paintings however only allude for me to our entry and exit to the computer medium. What happens inside the screens in terms of the effect cyberspace has on individuals does not concern the artist ? that is our business.

Especially in Australia, perhaps we are more familiar with an art that is more directly related to nature and more suitable to our spiritual concerns. Kaneda is, I imagine, resolutely urban. For her, nature is macro and biomorphic rather than grand and representative. Like a contemporary Cezanne, she uses nature as a model but employs technology to temper it and construct her container. The language is at once delicate and robust, universal and highly specific. There is a sense of exhilaration when viewing her paintings that plays to our emotions. In the end, these extraordinary and unique paintings of Shirley Kaneda make us feel good.

Finally, I would like to both welcome and thank Shirley Kaneda and her partner Joe Fyfe for their visit to Australia. Also, Bernard Jacobson, Robert Delaney and Janey McAllester of Bernard Jacobson Gallery in London and New York for their efforts in making the exhibition possible.

- Bill Gregory, Sydney, September 2008


Shirley Kaneda
Soft Freeze
1 Oct - 1 Nov 2008

Exhibition features:

« back to previous page

Please note, works in previous exhibitions may no longer be available, please visit our stockroom for available works