For many years, Kim Van Do, who is Vietnamese and Dutch, and grew up in New York, has been part of a weekly drawing group that has included, at various times, Eric Holtzman (whom he has known for many years), Altoon Sultan, Joe Giordano, Marjorie Portnow, Yvonne Jacquette, Rudy Burckhardt, and Jack Beal. All are artists committed to making work based on direct observation. Do, who is in his mid-60s, is known among artists, but he is almost unknown in the art world.
Today is the last day of Kim Van Do: Light and Air of Summer, his debut exhibition at Blue Mountain Gallery. When I asked him where he had previously shown, he said this was first solo show in New York in 25 years, which I found both astonishing and predictable. With few exceptions, observational painting has long taken a backseat in American art, despite many powerful and compelling practitioners committed to painting what they see.
Do is a landscape painter interested in the perceptual shifts that occur when we stand in one place and turn our heads in order to survey what is before us. A student of Neil Welliver and Rackstraw Downes in the late 1970s, he has taken the latter’s conceptual understanding of a changing viewpoint and has run with it.
The 21 works in the exhibition can be divided into three groups of paintings: those on saws, rectangular canvases, and round canvases. Their dates range from 1993 to 2020, a span of more than a quarter century. They were done in upstate New York, in the Hudson Valley, and on the coast along Northern California.
Painted nearly 20 years ago, “Our Backyard” (oil on canvas, 44 by 80 inches, 2001) is one of the exhibition’s highlights. The view is of a farmhouse with a screened-in porch, in which someone is reading, on the right, and a treehouse on the left.
A clothesline cuts across the painting, from its left edge to a corner of the farmhouse, at a diagonal. The clothesline’s angle, which our eye follows along, underscores the skewed spatial dimension of the painting and the sharp diagonal of one side of the roof. Two things hang on the line. The largest, most prominent item is a semi-transparent green poncho, situated in the lower middle of the composition.
The poncho, which is a brighter green than everything around it, animates the entire painting. As a counterpoint to the green grass, the grass hue in the shadow of the house, its green trim, and the dark green oil tank against the house, it invites the viewer to pay closer attention to the changes in color, and the effects of sunlight and shadow.
It also functions as barrier between the observer and the reader on the porch, as it is located almost directly below her. The connection between the reader and the garment is further enhanced by the fact that she is wearing a muted variation of the poncho.
This painting made me keenly aware that Do’s use of color, within a circumscribed palette dominated greens, blues, browns, whites, and grays, was something I should pay close attention to.
In the symmetrical composition “Looking Through” (oil on canvas, 48 by 84 inches, c. 1998), Do illustrates a radical shift in perspective. As the river bends around the far shore, as if making a U-turn, the change in the color density and reflections in the river, as well as the different trees on the right and left sides, disrupt the mirroring effect.
In this and related paintings, Do takes the full range of our vision, from left to right and sky to ground, to an extreme. It is as if he is squeezing the whole of a panoramic view into a smaller format.
Do takes his fascination with changing perspectives to another level in what call his “Oculus” paintings, done on circular canvases. He composed these works by tracing a circle around the spot where he was standing, and then dividing that circle into predetermined sections, like cutting a pie. He then transcribed the view to a round surface.
In the exhibition’s three “Oculus” paintings, dated between 1993 and ’95, Do paints the line of sight from small rocks to the sky overhead along a circular trajectory: we seem to be looking down and up simultaneously, as head and body turn in a tight circle until we arrive back in our original position. Once I got over my amazement, I was able to see these paintings, which are full of details and all kinds of perceptual shifts.
One minute I was looking at rocks on the ground and seeing delicately painted yellow dandelions, and the next my eye seemed to be speeding up, as I wanted to see where the rocks led. The underlying abstraction of the circling band of earth, and the shift from the earth to sky, is delightfully dizzying. I might notice that the concentric circles that compose “Oculus Inversions” (oil on linen, 60 inches in diameter, c. 1994) depict the same view from different distances, so that the position of a rock in the outer circle is seen again in the smaller, inner circle; it is in exactly the same place, but it is a different size.
In “Oculus Buteo” (oil on linen, 60 inches in diameter, 1995), the land curls from the top into the painting’s center, like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), except instead of being surrounded by water, we see land and sky.
I don’t how many paintings Do made in this format, but in these three he does not repeat himself. Together, they form a unique body of work that should be better known.
In “Two-Person Saw” (oil on steel, 12 by 72 inches, 2014), another loosely symmetrical composition, Do uses the narrow format to depict a highway stretching from the left to run along the bottom, above the saw-tooth blade, and then curve away, receding into the distance on the right. On the other side of the road, there is a field with grazing cows, a farm and silo on the right, and rolling hills in the center. Painting on handsaws — a tool for making — he has constructed his own inimitable world.
In this exhibition, which amounts to a survey of his landscape paintings, done in familiar and unlikely formats, Do reminds us that landscape painting is far from exhausted and that — despite all its known conventions — invention is still possible.
Kim Van Do: Light and Air of Summer continues at Blue Mountain Gallery (547 West 27th Street, Suite 200, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 27.