It takes courage. Really. Quit laughing.

kurtI found myself lingering quite a while last night at State of the Street-ishan exhibit of street-inspired art at Rochester Contemporary Art Center, in partnership with the Memorial Art Gallery. It’s taken me far too long to get a look at Kurt Ketchum’s work, and I was even more impressed by it than I expected to be. Kurt’s paintings suggests graffiti in a tangential way, yet it’s street-ish because it conveys a sense that the objects he creates are almost ready-made segments of old city walls, covered with vestiges of posters, glue, weathered paint, and the scrawls of urban guerrillas armed with spray paint. The work requires time: you need to adjust to the visual language he’s developed, but the longer you look, the more the paintings draw you in and open up.

I’ve known Kurt for a long time.  I was surprised that the show brought to mind what at first seemed an entirely random set of memories from a 90’s weekend I spent with him and a couple other friends, John Buck and Tom Curtin. The four of us golfed almost non-stop for two days in North Carolina on courses in and around Pinehurst. It was 36 holes a day. One of those marathons. The results were mixed from one round to another, but at one of the courses we played, you could rent a llama for a caddy. (I wish I had a llama story, but we  declined them. Doh! Big hitter, the Lama. Long, into a ten-thousand foot crevasse . . . oh right, wrong Lama.) On the last day, we showed up in the morning mist, sleepy, dizzy, hungover and, frankly, intimidated by the first tee at a course called The Pit. It was a gnarly, sadistic path through a former sand quarry, with dramatic elevations and vertiginous drops, designed to induce despair with its tiny greens, overgrown chasms, and wild cart rides through twisty terrain. Each tee box was marked using old hardware from the rails that had carried loads of sand from the now-abandoned quarry: screws, spikes, half-rail anchors and rail anchors. Let’s play from the screw tees, one of us said, surrendering to the gallows humor induced by even a casual glance at this course. The screw tees were The Pit’s equivalent to the black on any other course, the longest from the hole and, of course, the hardest. We had a disheartening front nine, and yet we didn’t give up. On the tenth hole, it all changed. We settled down. We woke up. And somehow we actually played well on the back. It was one of the most gratifying rounds I’ve ever enjoyed, mostly because we simply kept going despite the punishment and humiliation of the front nine, and the crazy challenges of each hole. Nearly every shot induced a fear of the peculiar despair only golf can induce, and the doglegs brought dread of what new, crazy hazard might await around a bend. All the while, it seemed your ball could disappear into water, woods, sand, or, well, something like a crevasse. I still have that score card on a shelf in my studio, with those tallies in the lower forties on the back, scrawled in pencil. When a foursome of bogie golfers shoots better than its average, or thereabouts, on nine holes at The Pit, you don’t let go of the evidence.

Kurt’s paintings are each like that scorecard. Golf and painting are both about the necessity of hope and the likelihood of despair. With every one of Kurt’s paintings, he’s fought his way toward a win: I didn’t see a losing round anywhere in what he’s showing at RoCo. Each painting serves as proof of his ability to scrape, roll, scratch, stroke and draw his way toward an image that’s never clear to him until he discovers it. And it’s less an image than an indeterminate field of energy coagulating into weathered-looking patches of paint that hold shreds of definite forms. This is the sort of painting you have to keep relearning how to do with each work, which means it takes courage. He’s updating the heart of abstract expressionist improvisation with his own visual vocabulary of airy, taut, looping lines and fragments of a tipped-over and reversed alphabet. Is that a K? Is that a C or a U? It’s never clear what you seem to be seeing. He conveys so much motion that it’s hard not to feel the image changes a little whenever you aren’t looking. He works within extremely tight restrictions: every one of the pieces is essentially a shallow square box, the paint adhering to an unprimed wooden panel, about four feet by four feet in height and width, mounted on a cradle probably four inches deep. Each one sticks out from the wall to such a degree that it almost appears he grabbed a dozen shipping pallets for a few bucks in some garage and went to town with them for six months. They’re marked, scored, cracked in places, riddled with nails and a few screws, engraved naturally with the wood grain that shows through, the sides left raw, so that you see the layers of lamination in the plywood, when that’s what he’s working on. There’s even a little square of blue masking tape—like a postage stamp—stuck in the upper corner of one. These are highly finished pieces, intensely labored, earned, and yet they have the aura of being provisional, maybe abandoned just in time, still breathing. Maybe they keep growing into something else after he walks away from them. You move from one to the next, feeling as if he kept trying to do the same thing again and again, succeeding every time, but in a way he couldn’t have predicted.

Those who don’t paint or golf will probably laugh at the suggestion that it takes courage to do either. Caddy Shack isn’t exactly Saving Private Ryan. Neither is Pollock. What’s really at stake, right? Try it and see. Rick Harrington and I have had many conversations about how much painting resembles a physical sport: there’s the same need to get out of your mind, to tap your subconscious abilities, and to overcome the dread and gloom that accompany a bad day of it. Riding a motorcycle is a demonstrably dangerous thing to do, yet I’m never afraid when I do it. Alert, yes. Refreshingly apprehensive, yes. Afraid? No. Until I spot a deer heading toward the road, anyway. When I golf, or paint, there’s a little pang of fear lurking around every stroke. It’s the fear of not being able to get your body to do something you thought you knew how to do. It’s fundamentally humiliating, discouraging, depressing . . . and you fear the notion that you’ve invested four hours, four days, four weeks into something that can just turn ugly in a way that makes you simply give up. With painting, it’s the fear that you can’t do what it is that gives meaning to your life. You can choose to do it in a way that’s easily repeatable and sells, the safe way, or you can take chances and find fruitfully risky ways to discover images that are as fresh and surprising to you as they are to someone else. Which means to always be trying to do what you don’t quite know how to do–to push through that moment when you can’t figure out what the painting needs. I won’t laugh and say Kurt was in that mode on the golf course (we’re all in that mode because you can’t retain a good golf swing in your head, you have to keep finding it). But it’s high praise to say he seems to be braver than most whenever he starts a new painting. All of which is to say I’ve got evidence of Kurt’s courage in pencil on a card here at home, and there’s more of it, in paint, down at RoCo.

With this show, he’s sharing space with some interesting and even distinguished company. Craig Colorusso’s solar-powered sound installation creates a unique alpha-wave ambience as you walk from room to room: a video shows how he sets up his speakers almost anywhere to create a moment never to be repeated. Irvin Climaco Morazan’s “cheesedoodle headdress” hangs from the ceiling, a humorous and, to be honest, slight disquieting piece of headgear, with jars full of orange cheese snacks for eyes. Yes, it made me hungry. It’s part of a costume for Morazon’s street performances that mash up shamanistic ritual with contemporary culture. A video of his work loops on a wall near the entry.

Foremost among the exhibitors is Karlos Carcamo, a Beacon artist whose elegant work has been cited by both Roberta Smith and Holland Cotter. Carcamo marries remnants of graffiti tags with rectangular grids of extremely subtle color: offering glimpses of the spray-can’s cursive energy between and behind the grids. Everything floats. The hints of graffiti art seem to recede to a middle depth behind the grids and in front of the wall, making the flat angular rectangles of subtle hues project toward the viewer. The support itself seems to levitate—a sheet of canvas wrapped around a pair of panels designed so that they come to a pointed edge hovering an inch or more away from the wall. His work integrates the disobedient energy of street art with comparatively refined modernist conventions from half a century ago—it suggests AbEx gestural work paired with the minimalism that arose in reaction to it a decade later. His assiduous attention to the quality of his paint gives the work a chill perfectionism. The grids are smoothly applied in uniform layers of color, while the graffiti sweeps in misty arcs behind it, as finely rendered as fog in a Chinese scroll painting. What I like most is the marriage of opposites in this work—the impromptu feel of graffiti fused into the meditative, calm geometry of designer color. As a whole, these paintings convey a sense of taste Clement Greenberg would have admired, yet there’s an ironic appreciative smile behind the cool facade. If you look at his whole output, you’ll recognize how much he relies on a dialectical tension between high and low, what’s in and what’s out, what’s hip and what isn’t. On his home page, you’re greeted by a work that could almost be a logo for what was most vital in 70s pop culture: a pair of hipster sneakers hanging from a ceiling with soles done up as if they were the underside of a disco mirror ball. He merges the now-laughable Saturday Night Fever glitz of dance clubs from 1976 with the hiphop genre that emerged directly out of it and now has become the major tributary of current mainstream pop culture. Yet he’s making an interesting point as he quietly, cleverly characterizes an era. In one stroke, with that lurking benevolent smile, he’s pasted together a humble, witty symbol of both disco and the hiphop it jump-started—pointing out how disco gave birth to the movement that walked all over it. High and low, in and out, impulsive and precise, gestural and geometric—he resolves his opposites in an almost serene reflection on them that suggest generously (and beautifully) that, hey, guess what, we’re all in this together.

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