Things Counter, Spare, and Strange
Edmund and Charles Kanwischer @ raw & co.
Every house is haunted, at least by the people that live there. We know this in our dreams
as we wander through rooms and down half-familiar hallways, a collage of every place we
have ever made our own. In the end we are the ones haunted, by houses murmuring
about shape and limit in the background of our intimate experience.
The houses depicted by Edmund and Charles Kanwischer, father and son, seem to trace
the lineage of a single finely tuned sensibility. The father, influenced by abstract and
structural ideas (born in 1928, he studied with Mark Rothko among others), is profoundly
painterly and deceptively rough, while the son (a Yale graduate and current Associate
Director of Bowling Green’s School of Art), reflecting the structural concerns of a more
subtle and academic era (which also in this context seems feminine – at least tracing a yin
to his father’s yang) draws with the utmost delicacy, sketching a relationship between the
calibrations a human hand can enact, and the mechanical finesse of photography.
At the beginning of a brief essay included in a catalogue published for this exhibit, Charles
Kanwischer reproduces Gerard Manley Hopkins’ classic poem “Pied Beauty.” The devout
and highly eccentric 19th century British poet laureate wrote, “Glory be to God for dappled
things / …And all things counter, original, spare and strange.” This is especially an apt
description of Kanwischer fils’ misty meadows and almost pointillist renderings of simple
typical 20th century American houses. The artist concentrates on a particular sort of home
that might be described as a “starter,” a practice home for the 1930’s – 60’s nuclear
family. Another Victorian-era poet, Charles Baudelaire, urged the painters of his day to
“show us our own poetry,” and that is something that these drawings, at once laborious
and light, accomplish. One drawing in the catalogue shows the home’s living room, with a
dark couch and large, square coffee table and other furnishings. But in this exhibit, the
room is shown empty, as if by a real estate agent. Exterior drawings, presumably of the
same house, show the model home in isolation, as an ideal.
Technically the drawings are mesmerizing. Rather than using lines of medium length, or
dots in the Impressionist manner, the younger Kanwischer constructs his depictions from
an accumulation of tiny pencil twitches of varying intensity. It’s as if he draws with fuzz, like
bits of fiber under slight magnification. The end result has an unstable, hallucinatory
quality, but in combination with a sense of organic integrity. It’s as if these renderings
appeared on the paper, rather than being the end result of a process of observation and
depiction. In that way they remind one of photographs, and are able to borrow from
photography a certain sense of objective integrity. That this is absolutely an illusion is of
course a large part of this artist’s point. In a manner that parallels the subatomic
constitution of reality itself, these familiar and instantly recognizable images are
constructed from a tightly organized system of neuromuscular quarks.
In his essay Charles Kanwischer writes of the desire he shares with his father, “to
celebrate the capacity of ordinary materials to receive and hold the imprint of
consciousness – to keep perpetually immanent decisions and forces whose particular
workings have vanished into the past.” It’s as if any artist is, in essence, making a vinyl
recording by hand – carving and codifying arcana along the spiraling grooves of the work
Edmund Kanwischer’s found-material constructions reflect the sensibility of a different era,
perhaps, but seem in no way dated, especially in Cleveland’s old Tremont neighborhood,
where artistic response to the ever-present aesthetic of rust-belt decay is commonplace.
Each of his ten works on display is a small wooden box, about a foot high or less. All of
them tilt slightly to one side, so that the front of each forms a parallelogram. The pieces of
wood from which they are assembled are cracked and appear of considerable age,
although sometimes the artist has added touches and sections of new color.
The angularity of these constructions, and the careful nuances of color that distinguish
interior transitions between sections, make them seem more than a little like paintings. It is
easy to find parallels in these works to modernists like Lionel Feininger, or for that matter
to Henri Matisse, and of course to Edmund Kanwischer’s near conteporary Richard
Though each possesses some feature (a door or window-like opening, or a sort of front
stoop) that suggests a house, none of the boxes are literally houses, and while Charles
seems to sublimate a sort of primal scene – exterior and interior views of an ideal home, to
which he adds visions of fields and trees that constitute an Edenic context – Edmund
seems almost to create reliquaries of a real building. The bits and pieces stand in for
realities that are largely tactile or otherwise sensual, and the three-dimensional approach
also urges the viewer to consider each object as something that means to sample and
embody the thing it depicts.
Both Kanwischers examine memory as they sift through significant passages that have
been part of their lives. This small show, spare and strange as it is, is a reminder that our
own highly personal aesthetic responses – our tastes, our interests, perhaps our
obsessions – are also part of a continuum shared not only by other artists, but by those
we love and have known best.
[Cleveland Free Times 6/21/06]