SAN FRANCISCO — The email announcement for Kimetha Vanderveen at Peter Mendenhall Gallery (February 11–April 1, 2023) reminded me of the afternoon I spent in her sunlit studio in San Francisco’s Hunter’s Point Shipyard at the end of October 2022. Until then I had seen her work only digitally, not in person. After an email introduction from a mutual friend, we met in a coffee shop in early February 2022 in New York’s Koreatown. Even though I had no idea when, or even if, I would travel again at that point, I told Kimetha that I would visit her studio the next time I was in San Francisco. Something about the work’s modest scale and evocation of light through materiality piqued my curiosity. This is how, six months later, I ended up in her studio.

As Vanderveen began to show me her works, many of them nuanced monochromatic oil paintings on panels that were less than eight by eight inches, I returned to a question asked by Joe Brainard and Thomas Nozkowski: how big does a work of art have to be? Though certainly many abstract artists working monochromatically have made larger pieces, I did not feel that Vanderveen’s works needed to be bigger. What was it about them that demanded they be small?

We often think of monochromatic paintings as a solid field of a single color. Vanderveen does something different. She paints one pale color over another so that traces of the previous layer peek through faintly. In one work, I found myself focusing on a brushstroke that moves across the surface, gently and precisely, causing the color on each side of it to change slightly. Vanderveen is a tonalist. Her paintings are about the interaction of materiality and light, the bond between the palpable and ephemeral world in which we live.

Vanderveen wants the viewer to scrutinize her paintings, to become aware of the tonal shifts and gradations, as well as the interaction between the paint and the light emanating from its material surface. They are meditations on time passing, which I think is the essential subject of her work. 

Kimetha Vanderveen, “Untitled” (2022), oil on panel, 6 x 6 inches

As soon as I saw the watercolors that Vanderveen had placed on the table before me in her studio, I wanted to write about them. The 15 watercolors, each measuring five by seven inches, were all made near a lake in Camden, Maine, over the course of a few hours in the summer of 2022; she started in the early morning and stopped in the mid-afternoon. They are a quietly joyous diary of light changing and time’s passage. At the same time, the sense of time passing and the aloofness of the material world introduce notes of loss and mourning into each view.

Vanderveen divides the horizontal format into three areas: lake, hills, and sky. The middle band is generally the darkest in color and the most defined in shape. The perspective shifts throughout, as the artist changes her position slightly or gazes in a different direction. She seems to have used only four pale colors in all the works: gray, blue, green, and yellow. The paper’s surface always peeks through. While she used a brush, the dried puddles or stains show no sign of her hand. Some of the works approach representation, while others only cohered as landscapes after I reminded myself of what I was looking at — and even then I was not always sure of what I was seeing. That slippage seems to me to be crucial to the paintings. Vanderveen is not trying to name something so much as depict — in these works at least — change and impermanence, the passing moment. If the watercolors are meant to be memory aids, a record of a day spent by a lake in Camden, they are also about a world disappearing from sight and the faultiness of memory. The modestly scaled watercolors hover between form and dissipation. I remembered the first stanza of Henry Vaughn’s poem “They Are All Gone into the World of Light”:

They are all gone into the world of light!
And I alone sit ling’ring here;
Their very memory is fair and bright,
And my sad thoughts doth clear.

This is why I kept looking at Vanderveen’s paintings and watercolors, and why they have stayed in my mind.

Kimetha Vanderveen, “Untitled” (2022), watercolor on paper, 5 x 7 inches
Kimetha Vanderveen, “Untitled” (2022), watercolor on paper, 5 x 7 inches

Kimetha Vanderveen continues at Peter Mendenhall Gallery (180 South Lake Avenue, Suite 110, Pasadena, California) through April 1. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...

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