by Kenneth Baker from the exhibition catalogue
American culture today has little use for contemplation. Unlike such dispositions as restlessness, impatience, disappointment, competitiveness and envy, it scarcely lends itself to exploitation by the profit system that rules our lives.
As a pursuit, or even as a last psychological resort, contemplation can feel as isolating as private grievance or a guilt-inducing secret vice. It runs counter to contemporary culture's manic extroversion, which seems to have deafened nearly everyone to the oxymoron in the phrase "social media."
The art world no longer stands apart, if it ever really did, from the wider society's cravings for notoriety and economic loopholes. Yet the art nexus still makes space now and then for new artworks, such as Kimetha Vanderveen's paintings, that explicitly invite quiet, sustained attention, with no overt promise of a payoff.
Even after a century of abstract art production, the voids that a painter fills -- blank canvases, panels or pages -- continue to vibrate with echoes of the long tradition of European pictorial art. Experienced viewers may sense those subliminal echoes almost as vividly as painters who try to reach an accommodation with them.
In small oil paintings on panels, and occasionally on pieces of found wood, Vanderveen stages ambiguities of perception, or draws them forth, with a subtlety that may effectively make her works invisible to some who approach them in haste. Some pieces may evoke memories of landscape or of nuances of weather and natural light. A few might even bring to mind the sparest watercolors of J. M. W. Turner.
But Vanderveens's paintings tend to be sparing of allusions and generous with minute details, such as the faint lapping of under-painted color at a picture's edges or corners or fluctuations of surface finish so subtle that only the right slant of light will reveal them.
Some works in this exhibition may bring color field painting to mind, but they are closer to color chips in scale than color fields. They become fields only if and as their dimensions billow subjectively under the pressure of a viewer's attention. They owe what depth they appear to have largely to the energy of our attention to them. If we withdraw it, or never bring it, they can seem as weightless and empty as unwritten postcards.
But Vanderveen seeks a kind of fullness that we seldom encounter in material culture beyond the margins of art.
If we linger with the paintings, we can feel their whispering insistence that we ask ourselves repeatedly what we are seeing. And they frequently deliver, rather than answer, re-tunings of the question: slowing, shifting or dissolving and retracing distinctions we presume to exist between an object and our perception of it. Do we even have names for those distinctions? If we do not doubt it already, Vanderveen's paintings can make us do so.
Perceptual uncertainty may set in around the question of color names. Some pieces we can imagine pegging with a color name - one that I would describe as Naples yellow comes to mind. Others seem to have no dominant, stable or nameable hue. Their color complexion seems to defy memory and even eyes-on certainty. To know them, they insist with a tacitly ethical pressure, we must be in their company.
In many cases the longer we look at a Vanderveen painting, the harder it feels to plot with words the sequence of ambiguous sensations we experience. Our confidence in the linkages between words and things begins to slacken. Some people will experience this sensation as liberating. Others will find in it a foretaste of potentially paralyzing skepticism.
Contemplation fulfills itself in a changed experience of time.
To those overcommitted to the life of action, a slowing of time may seem the necessary prerequisite to contemplation, but that gets things backwards.
Set aside calendar and clock time, or imagine that you could, and time-as-experienced becomes all the time we know. Time's slowing - or rather a true, focal sense of its elasticity - arises only in contemplation, and Vanderveen's work makes that invitation.
Her paintings are devices for modulating our experience of time, but their ostensible simplicity communicates the fact that we have to affect ourselves by means of them. Like the contemplation that they invite, they will not change us. Their inertia denies us escape, but it shows us something of our powers as perceivers capable of reflection that we may have forgotten, or not discovered before.
The beauty of Vanderveen's paintings seems like an inevitable by-product of her process of lavishing countless hours of fabrication, revision and observation upon objects that look pocketsize in the contemporary art context. Their refinement, vulnerability and soft luminosity account for their surprising aesthetic force, but so does their capacity, by their very modesty, to make us feel the latent power of our attention magnified, yet not exaggerated. Too few contemporary artworks show their viewers such respect.