I notice right away, anyone would, when I walk into the Projects Gallery’s new show “See the Woods for the Trees” that artist Joan Kahn likes geometric shapes. She says that herself, and recounts a comment her young son made years ago when asked what his mother does. “She paints boxes,” he said, “and if that makes her happy, it’s all right with me.” “True,” Kahn says today, “I love to paint boxes.”
I see squares and rectangles all over her paintings—in pinks, greens, and yellows—overlapping, intersecting, lined up, floating. But I see other shapes, too—almonds, scallops, lines, circles. I see the wood’s grain through the luminous colors—the combination of living organic shapes and abstract geometrical shapes. In Kahn’s art, mathematician meets the wild; her pieces are startling, gorgeous, and, well, fun.
When I look at Kahn’s paintings (as well as her drawings, which are studies, really, for the paintings, and drawn on a computer), I see things she might not—a landscape, for example, as seen from above—a patchwork of fields or a river and road or a distant horizon with the gradations of color and line that a view of sky might offer. A bird’s eye view or a balloonist’s, when a grand sweep of a supremely quiet world is all that there is.
The titles of Kahn’s pieces add a dash of poetry to the paintings. A large piece of layered boxes in shades of pink, titled “Heart,” may refer to the complexities of the body or of love, and the diagonally placed purple squares in “Falling Up, Falling Down” suddenly move like an escalator or a bunch of kids playing ring-around-the-rosy. And what is that knot doing in the middle of the painting? Watching, I expect, saying, There’s more to life than mechanicals.
I especially love the artist’s statement about her show, which reveals that Kahn, after all, likes a lot more than boxes. She likes trees—how and where they grow, their names, how they sustain our planet. For Kahn, learning about the ecology of trees is as important as painting on their wood. The two go hand-in-hand—forest, trees, harvesting, making art. Thus, the title of the show—not, as we usually interpret that expression, too immersed in the details of a project to grasp its overall importance, but rather, take hold of the big picture first and don’t let go.