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Simplicity in Symbols

Artist's paintings, sculptures convey a sense of spirituality.

July 23, 1999|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With his quietly dramatic exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center, the noted New York-based artist Tobi Kahn crosses over a few lines of artistic convention without apology.

For one, he breaks the code of specialization as an artist who both sculpts and paints, with each discipline influencing the other while also being distinctly different.

He freely slithers between the worlds of the representational and the abstract, relishing the possibility of the title of his show--"Metamorphoses."

In an often secularized art world in recent years, Kahn openly aspires to a sense of spirituality in his work, sometimes dealing with themes related to his Jewish faith.

That aspect is reflected in a selection of Jewish ceremonial objects, including Sabbath candlesticks and handcrafted kiddush cups.

His large paintings vaguely resemble landscape scenes with identifiable links to nature as we know it--horizon lines, curving hills and odd-shaped bodies of water--but their elemental forms are reduced to the point of near-abstraction.

One could call Kahn's forms sculptural, as with the odd stone archway and interlocking shapes of land and water in "Mazi."

The surfaces are richly textured, suggesting rough wood with the color planes subtly gradated. On close inspection, they're not nearly as monochromatic as they might initially appear. The sum effect invites multiple interpretations, and you might find a hooded face woven into the sea cave-like image of "Sido."

In contrast, his sculptures suggest nothing so much as small shrines with tiny objects of presumed veneration within.

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The initial religious connotations of the shrines also yield to a different interpretation, such as Lilliputian variations on his installation work in self-contained little galleries, art-within-art scenes.

Kahn's work, pleasing to the senses and thought-provoking in conception, seems to adhere to a new brand of sincerity in art.

Post-post-Modern art world irony has seemingly had its day, and may be lying low until the next cultural cycle validates its smirk again.

Meanwhile, a clutch of important artists, of which Kahn is a part, are taking another tack, patiently exploring the simple, symbolic power of painting--and of sculpture and assemblage--and trying to see what fruits serious artistic consideration might yield.

BE THERE

"Tobi Kahn: Metamorphoses" through Aug. 26 at Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Gallery hours: Tuesday-Saturday noon-5 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (310) 440-4500.

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