Not even gloomy rainy days can get in the way of radiant butterflies determined to glide over grassy fields in search of the sun. To aid their journey, an artist arms them with multicolor marbleized wings.
Spring is the perfect backdrop to the jovial artworks of American painter Morton Kaish, whose solo exhibition is now on view through May 5 at the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens. About 26 acrylic paintings and prints featuring lush landscapes, bright flowers and energetic butterflies make up An Eye for Nature: Paintings and Prints by Morton Kaish. Spread throughout four rooms and in no particular order, the pieces channel Kaish’s ongoing passion for nature and life in general. At 92, he still finds ways to lend a new vitality to common subjects previously touched by academic styles.
Wildflowers put on a compulsory dance in My Garden (2016). If we approach the large canvas from the right edge and let our eyes travel toward the crowded center, it would appear the dense floral arrangement rolled down a hill and crashed at its feet. A bed of carnations, roses and poppies rises like foam and threatens to swallow the angry pug standing in the shaded foreground.
Kaish elects to clearly define some flowers while cutting other flowers loose to adopt whatever shape they feel like taking. Landscapes pieces such as this one recall impressionism’s studies of natural light and color. Powerful influences also come together in a print titled Wild Irises, where towering stems and vigorous wavy petals borrow Vincent van Gogh’s flower treatment while the bottom right edge evokes Claude Monet’s foggy morning skies.
Meanwhile, the bright columns erected in Summer Nocturne (1996) take a detour from traditional techniques and exhibit a more decorative, patterning quality. The soft edges get sharper and the flat solid background featuring blocks of dark and light blues is deliberately interrupted by multiple horizons in pale pink and orange and black.
“I’d say the simplest flower is as close to a miracle as we get in our day-to-day lives,” Kaish says on his website.
The New Jersey native, whose works can be found in major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, has always worked in series that explore and revisit a specific theme. Butterflies captured in the act of flying became his focus starting in 2016. An Eye for Nature includes about eight works from that set, most of which are housed in the western gallery space. They clearly benefit from the freedom, chaos and speed extended by abstraction.
In paintings such as Arrival IV (2018), the artist summons a clash of color and textures to portray a butterfly in the act of taking off. Flat geometric shapes surrender to looser organic forms. Each wing segment is unique with a different range of hues and assortment of bold lines, the pace of which is occasionally interrupted by controlled explosions – as if the vibration of the wings had been too much. The broken lines are left unrepaired to heal on their own.
In the next room, another oversized butterfly threatens to leave the frame of Arrival V. This time, the insect floats above a rose contemplating its bright yellow target, which appears directly ahead and amplified like a dartboard. The forewings get showered in paint specks while the right hindwing has the markings of an aerial image with an active volcano and a black lava lake that wastes no time in blending with other colors.
The presence of not one but several highlights in An Eye for Nature has a reverse effect on understated interpretations. Instead of being dismissed in favor of radiant pieces, they stand out. The robust core of a tree adorned by infant flowers takes over an entire canvas titled New Day (1992). The artist only offers a partial view of his subject, but it’s enough to detect a much more painterly approach. The darker undertone, impasto technique and narrow angle make this acrylic-and-oil work unique in the show. Plus, there’s that unexpected pairing of magenta and ochre shades.
“Much of the time, we seem to be making our way through life’s clutter, trailing loose ends and unfinished business,” Kaish says to the camera in a video filmed two years ago. “Still, for brief shimmering moments we become the sum of ourselves and the world opens wide. For me, it comes quietly and unexpectedly while at work in the studio.”
A set of monotypes housed in the room opening out to the garden confirm the artist’s enduring interest in capturing impermanent beauty via new approaches. They, too, are worthy of attention. As with the rest of the show, make that attention the long-span variety.
An Eye for Nature: Paintings and Prints by Morton Kaish, runs through May 5 at the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens, West Palm Beach. Main gardens are open Wednesday to Sunday 10 am to 4 pm. Admission: $15, $10 for seniors, $7 for students. Call 561-832-5328 or visit www.ansg.org.