Last Call: Shay Kun at Martine Chaisson Gallery

It’s the last week to catch Shay Kun's “Domestic Sticky Wildlife” at Martine Chaisson. Before it’s gone, Charley Cameron reviews.

Shay Kun, Scavengers , 2011. Oil on canvas. Courtesy the artist and Martine Chaisson Gallery, New Orleans.

Shay Kun’s romantic oil paintings trade in thoroughly modern absurdities. In the Israeli painter’s technicolor images, implausibly unshaken landscapes are intruded upon by ambling tourists and contorting carnies, a roadside bomb and a rusted Porsche, not to mention a puzzling number of hot air balloons.

But Kun doesn’t seek to create visual chaos for its own sake, rather the interlopers speak directly to the viewer, playing out scenes in nature as if on a stage. The works are performative in tone and often in content as well. In Scavengers, 2011, skull-capped vaudevillian showgirls strike a variety of alluring yet fundamentally comedic postures, posed upon rocks in the foreground as birds of prey pick upon three unattended yachts in the distance. All players are dwarfed by the sublime power of the Hudson River School-inspired landscape. The viewer is at once welcomed and placed squarely as a voyeur—here as much a stranger as Kun’s characters—calmly taking in a spectacle that would seem apocalyptic were it not for the persistence of the natural setting.

Shay Kun, Glory Days, 2011. Oil on canvas. Courtesy the artist and Martine Chaisson Gallery, New Orleans.

In Glory Days, 2011, we meet with what appears to be a dressed-down soldier, watching a sinking battleship on the verge of careening down a waterfall. Unable to see his facial expression, which we would otherwise assume to be one of horror, we can read only his posture: hands in pocket, slouched, and unaffected. His passive variety of “bearing witness" reflects our own, as he stands powerless to intercede. At times Kun’s tourists visiting with destruction seem more determined in their approach; in I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead, 2010-2011, a heavily armed commando emerges from a clearly marked U.S. military humvee to attend the fiery remains of a distant roadside bomb. The only onlookers (whom we cannot see), are represented by a sole vulnerable, yet distinctly tacky and inappropriately cheerful, hot air balloon.

Shay Kun, I'll Sleep When You're Dead , 2010-2011. Oil on canvas. Courtesy the artist and Martine Chaisson Gallery, New Orleans.

Kun’s cynicism directed at contemporary life, at the bullying “might” of military and industrial powers, and at the urbanized populations who seek out such dramatic natural environs to assuage their feelings of disconnection could seem at first flat and judgmental. But the works’ underlying dark humor relies upon the viewer to share in the artist’s wry disbelief, as very real versions of such devastation, arrogance, and complacency unfold outside the gallery’s walls. His characters and intrusions are, in his own words, “an almost offensively inadequate substitute for the deities or characters of noble bearing that filled their place in the painting of past centuries.” They are carefully picked to provide a snapshot of current political themes—indigent workers, inexplicable warfare, and economic decline—but few enough as to maintain their contextual insignificance.

The artist honors the work of Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt, the awestruck depictions of lands upon which the Romantic painters themselves had newly intruded. Kun revives these landscapes with bright palettes and simple yet detailed brushwork that nearly broaches anime forms, serving to make his images all the more fantastical in their peculiar collision of styles and ideas. His deepest respect, however, lies with nature itself—the grandeur of the mammoth mountain and the serenity of a placid lake—and its ability to remain unwavering as man and his creations crash and burn within it.

Editor's Note

“Domestic Sticky Wildlife” on view through March 31, 2012 at Martine Chaisson Gallery, 727 Camp Street in New Orleans. The exhibition is open Tuesday-Saturday, 11 am-5 pm.