In his home in Philadelphia, artist Alex Kanevsky has a special shelf for the paintings he has just completed. He finds that if they talk too much, he may not really be finished.
“I bring them home from my studio and put them on that shelf, and there they stand,” he said. “I look at it sometimes as I walk by. And after a couple weeks, if (a painting) really starts irritating me, then I have to take it back.”
The Russian-born artist doesn’t have a conventional relationship with his paintings where he is the master, they are the paintings, and the process is a matter of asserting his artistic will.
“I don’t think of painting as something I do to a canvas,” said Kanevsky, who had just arrived at the Lux Art Institute for a monthlong residency.
Rather, he engages in a dialogue with his artwork.
“When I start, I have only a very general idea of what I want to accomplish and even less a precise idea of how I’m going to accomplish it,” Kanevsky said. “I do have a very clear idea of the emotional climate I want to have (on the canvas). …
“Then I try to accomplish it and the painting says, ‘No, you can’t have that.’ And that’s the dialogue. The better I become at what I do, the more alive this thing is, and the more likely it is to talk back and disagree.”
Kanevsky, a graduate of Vilnius University in Lithuania and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, has become good enough to earn numerous gallery shows on both coasts and attract the attention of a cadre of loyal collectors.
“Painting is something I’ve always wanted to do,” he said. “I’m perfectly fine going to my studio, seven days a week, and spending my whole entire life in there. It has absolutely nothing to do with my work values or, you know, dedication; it’s because I want to be there. I’m actually very lazy.
“But I go there and I work there every day because I can’t think of anything better, more fun, more interesting to do.”
Kanevsky tried to escape painting. At Vilnius, he studied mathematics, although he couldn’t resist painting on the side. And when he moved to the U.S. and attended art school, he experimented with other mediums.
“I tried sculpture, I did some bronze, I did some marginally conceptual stuff back in art school, some performance stuff,” he said. “That was interesting enough, but you always look for something that is your speed. In other words, something you can do with the same speed as you are thinking about it.
“If something I’m doing is too slow, I end up being bored with it. I’m thinking about the next steps rather than being right here and now. And if it’s too fast for me, then it’s all out of control and it just crashes and burns.
“I was very lucky that painting, particularly oil painting, is exactly my speed.”
Much of Kanevsky’s work deals with people, and looking at the 13 pieces on exhibit at Lux, there are certain commonalities in how he approaches the figure, his mastery of space, and his use of subtle but significant contrasts. Still, his highly individual work resists categorization and he strongly rejects the idea of following a set aesthetic.
“I imagine the fashion designers have this problem of differentiating themselves from a large field of practitioners who are doing the same thing,” he said. “So they need to make a strong aesthetic statement that separates them from the field.
“Painting is not so product-oriented, and I’m not really looking for a niche to fill. What makes painting interesting, endlessly fascinating, is it presents an endless amount of challenges that are never resolved. It’s never perfect; it can only approach perfection, if I even knew what that was. The only thing I can do as an artist is stay away from the choices that make it easier for me — the aesthetic choices — and try to reach some sort of clarity.”
If he gave in to following some set style, it might preclude that spontaneous dialogue with the painting that is the elemental force behind his art.
“I have a responsibility to that (painting) because, for me, it’s a life,” he said. “I feel I have started this thing that wants to move and harmonize itself, and my job now is to help it along to do that.
“So I have to work with it, perceiving the subtle signals in it, of what it means, and then finding ways to act on those signals.”
The conversation between him and the painting may take weeks, or even months, to play out, but even then, he allows space for the dialogue to continue, although this time it’s with the viewer.
“If you leave a little room for the viewer to feel they can finish it for you, then that’s a door they can enter, that’s a gift that is given to them. … It’s their opportunity to participate in the creation of the painting.”
Even after he’s finished, Kanevsky’s best paintings never stop talking.
JAMES CHUTE • U-T
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