Empty Street, Shadow above a River, Sea Space (1985-1988)
Kiff has always been the sort of painter, like Pollock or Klee, who regards the picture surface as an overall substance on which forms are embedded, or from which they emerge, but never as a passive receptacle onto which elements are imposed. Each work responds to what the ground itself lends to the image.
The triptych (Empty Street, Shadow above a River, Sea Space, 1985-88) painted on large panels of brown hardboard is a good example. It reminds one of Kiff’s feeling for earth colour - not only for its materiality, as in English-type painting derived from Bomberg, but also for its light. There is a Corot-like love of the spectrum-within-a-spectrum that earth colours contain: the progression from red to blue within brown. These clearly articulated syllables of colour constitute the image.
The glowing woman with flowers in the final panel of the triptych, the sun and the serene expanse of sea – together with the many other images of creative freedom typical in his work - reflect a painting language that commands a wide range of expression. But there is also a startling awareness of its limits. It is shocking to discover, on closer examination of the triptych, how little of it is actually painted. Large areas of brown earth colour are merely the hardboard support breaking into the painting – either left unpainted altogether, or with the paint scraped away. The effect of this is to make one realise that, although the continuous skin of paint is not sustained in a literal way, a sense of a continuous picture plane which integrates the brown board into a luminous whole does extend itself created and unbroken in the eye and mind. But this occurs almost in the teeth of the literal – as if the skin of the painting had been peeled back to show its skeleton. The beauty of painting with its images of creative freedom is brought right up against the dead, unmade, empty material of the ground; and we are made acutely aware of the actual physical stuff of painting, and at the same time the value of its symbolic and imaginative life within our lives.
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