There are some works of art that you can look at again and again and always see something more. Ken Schiano’s paintings, on view at the Academy Art Museum through November 8, are a case in point. Full of impossibly angled planes and baffling color relationships, they provoke you to puzzle out what is going on and how Schiano managed to do it.
A tiny slice of purple peers in from the left edge of “The History of Art in Dyssynchronous Order: fig. e,” its brushy surface an odd contrast to the bulk of the slightly iridescent dark green wedge beside it. It’s like comparing children’s scribbles with the metallic paint coating a car’s hood—the two don’t belong together, and from there it gets more bewildering. Like most of Schiano’s paintings, there’s so much going on that it makes your head spin. It’s as if you’re looking at many moments of time occurring all at once.
Anchored in a sea of periwinkle blue, a series of flat triangles of color march down the canvas, partially obscuring a complicated field of mottled shadows and garish hues as they go. Schiano works with dry pigment mixed with cold wax, a lush, semi-translucent medium admirably suited to his method of building up and scraping back layers of eccentric geometric shapes. This creates a captivating palimpsest of texture and activity. Edges of quadrilaterals show through fields of color painted on top, black is scratched and scraped away to reveal bright cerulean underneath and orange beneath that, and all the while, red triangles hover on top. There’s a whole archaeology of paint here.
Schiano thrives on uncomfortable relationships. His geometric shapes are precise, impersonal and very much at odds with the chaotic masses of texture and color beneath them. Trained as an architect, he constantly plays with perspective, teasingly angling a plane to seem to recede in space, then Escher-like, bending it impossibly forward with a shift in color or an edge sloping at a totally illogical angle. And as if they come from separate universes, his colors leap wildly from Crayola bright to subtle dusky shades to hues that seem to be corroding before your very eyes.
As experiments with geometric planes, Schiano’s paintings might seem chilly and cerebral were it not for the physical lusciousness of their surfaces. Like encaustics, cold wax has the seductive qualities of beeswax, and Schiano makes the most of it. Using his hands or a putty knife, he coats the surface, layering shape after shape, scraping back, veiling, unveiling, buffing and scratching back in with scribbling line work. The artist’s hand is everywhere, humanizing the rigidity of the geometry, making it friendly and enticing, and best of all, making it possible to trace the history of each image’s creation, step by step.
Like a latter-day Abstract Expressionist, Schiano allows his intuition to guide him as he plays with color, texture and form. There’s something of the academic in his systematic exploration of the visual tensions between forces and counter-forces, so it comes as no surprise that he taught studio art and architectural design for several years in the 1970s.
Hans Hoffman’s celebrated exploration of the visual push-pull of warm and cool colors and light and dark values immediately leaps to mind. Schiano’s paintings also call up the precise planar geometries of hard-edge painting, but while artists such as Elsworth Kelly and Kenneth Noland purposefully rejected the distinction between figure and background, forcefully rejecting illusions of depth, Schiano teases deep space from color relationships and sly twists of perspective.
Like Kelly and Noland, Schiano sometimes makes shaped paintings, that is, non-rectangular works whose contours are integral to the composition. It’s the perfect vehicle for his concerns. Almost a square, “Debe Debe” rests on the edge of a truncated corner as it tilts curiously to the left. Awkward color shapes rubbed partially transparent angle toward and along its center, like glints in a faceted jewel, but everything is off-kilter. The top of a mustard-hued shape flairs outward as if bending forward but a triangle of pale salmon pops up in front. Meanwhile, strips of white on top of sooty gray on top of muted turquoise forcibly push a knife of glowing orange back to hover at the edge of an abyss filled with smoldering dark red and black.
By mixing his own paints from dry pigment, Schiano is able to create an incredible range of extremely subtle colors. On the pretext of bringing the atmosphere of his studio to the Museum, he arranged quotes that he has posted in his studio in a line around the top of the gallery’s walls. One of them is “There are familiar colors, unfamiliar colors and forbidden colors.” It’s interesting to read what he’s thinking about, but the quotes are a distraction from the paintings themselves. This is powerful, fascinating work. Schiano doesn’t need to explain himself.
The work itself reveals countless insights into his process of creation. Several watercolors from his “Birds of Paradise Series,” each one just four squares of color arranged in a grid, present concise, nuanced studies of how intimately colors affect one another, whether juxtaposed or veiled one on top of another. Quiet meditations compared to the frenetic activity of his larger paintings, they are evidence of Schiano’s lovingly rigorous investigation of color theory. Likewise, a set of small monotypes printed on handmade paper in soft shades of brown are genial, gemlike experiments in bringing flat, geometric shapes to life with color, texture and overlay.
The single sculpture in the exhibit, “Matrix Series,” is also a kind of visualization tool. Made up of several open wooden rectangles, very much like picture frames, it’s a study of the relationship of seemingly irrationally angled planes. Painted in hot and cool colors, the frames seem at first to be a mindless jumble but closer inspection reveals that they are carefully interwoven and balanced to support each other both physically and visually. A model in cooperation, their seemingly precarious angles are maintained by mutual dependence.
The sculpture stands as a kind of three-dimensional explanation of Schiano’s intent throughout his work. However disparate his colors, forms and textures, however tense their visual conundrums of shifting space and their inference of slippery glimpses of time may be, they pulse with energetic movement held in perfect balance. Their forms may simultaneously evoke sensations of careening flight, soft quietude, a stab to the chest, a warm glow in the solar plexus and more, but always they speak of our familiar foggy urges to see back into the multiple histories of life and forward into its upcoming possibilities.