The first impression of Brooklyn-based artist Tim Kent’s Emma on the Stair of Uppark is that—yes, it’s quite pretty. The painting is a successful compositional story. It’s a perfectly ordered play of shadow and light, of hallways and rooms, foreground and background. It evokes a near empty home save for the warbling presence of Emma on the stairs; face blurred and body hidden in what appears to be a large heavy yellow jacket or gown. Paintings adorn the wall that leads to the far end of another well-lit room. Except for the painting on the wall above Emma, the rest of the artwork within the painting parallels your vision. Your eyes glance across their surfaces as your gaze reaches for the farther room. The subjects of these paintings are unclear. But their presence as landscape within an interior landscape is deeply felt, investing the work with a rich tension of uncertainty and intertextuality.
It’s strange. Your eye moves down the stairs with Emma to the empty seats facing her along the hall. And it also moves from front to back (or back to front?) of the hall. In either case, both directions also act as light sources, though neither seems to reach Emma. In fact, the two sources appear to be oppositional. And here you start to get the sense that this isn’t quite right. That there is something actually pretty sad about the work. It’s Emma’s position on the stairs. It begins to seem sort of liminal. Or unsure.
For Kent that’s the whole point. Her blurry inconsequential aspect is the product of a new philosophy of approaching the figure, “I’m always trying to find the figure in there somewhere.” The historical distance between Kent’s representation of the interior and the historicity of the rooms in our space only seems to deepen the resonance of these absences being drawn out from the depths of these forms, “We, in a sense, supply our own absence, when we begin to look into these interiors, as if we were figures of the paintings themselves.”
Sadness, loneliness—these are the predominant feeling states of Kent’s work. They are representational fields of what he describes as his, “state of constant reassessment of the self.” These empty chairs, long halls cloaked in shadow; these rooms with rich red painted walls—are relatively fixed places, aesthetically and emotionally. “These interiors don’t change. There is no consciousness involved in them.” But their referents do. And so do their registers. “All this truth, all this beauty. These ideas, these things, begin to dissolve,” and in that process of disintegration, walls begin to reflect our silly habitual attempts to reify our time in space. That is—to live within a space of time. Kent argues, “The interior space depicted both informs and reflects the imperfect primal warbling of our own consciousnesses and projections, our intimations of our limits and our transience. I mean. People are always coming and going. This is a transient city. We might think we know somebody. But then one day they tell you. I don’t love you anymore. And it’s all completely changed.” It’s the reason why Emma may appear slight, or slightly ephemeral, not quite there. These spaces are but the momentary reflection of a momentary passing self—a self that is only defined in its indefiniteness.
So it seems so menacing and right that Kent used a line from Marx to title his recent show at the Factory Fresh Gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn: All That’s Solid Melts into the Air. These reverberating political and historical elements only serve to strengthen one of the best aspects of Kent’s work. His material ambivalence, not only in form and execution (it’s wild provocation when a face blends into a wall or the nude body of a woman begins to sensuously merge with a bedsheet in a spasm of shared color and brushstroke) but in the historical/political dialogue. The interior or architectural space functions much in the same way we conceptualize history as functioning within a space of time. Both the historical moment, and the interior moment derive their meanings “from a matrix of multiple interrelated subtexts.”
Kent sees his work as a contribution to and a creation of subtexts. Adding to the field, so to speak. He takes compositional cues from works as diverse as Balthus and Japanese art from the Momoyama period. To Kent it’s all part of the larger humanistic project. “I love the idea of art. I love looking at paintings. I like thinking about them. I like the philosophy that undergirds them. I like the idea of the reproduction of a painting in a painting. I don’t really care whether it’s this or that kind of thing that’s in at the moment. Or if they say painting is dead. Everyone has been saying it’s dead for years. But it never will be. I have friends who make art. And I make art.”