The artists’ artist with an edgy touch

Friday October 10 2014

On and On by Richard Kimathi. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY

On and On by Richard Kimathi. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY  

By FRANK WHALLEY

Artists look forward eagerly to any new exhibition by Richard Kimathi and they rush to attend his private views.

They know Kimathi is an artist who always offers something new... paintings recognisably by the same hand but unfailingly a development of his restless investigation of society, and through that a journey of discovery that encompasses himself, them — and us.

From the men with a pistol for a penis that highlighted his previous solo show in February last year, Kimathi has moved from a study of insecurity masked as aggression to focus even more sharply on our relationships and sexuality.

The result can be seen at the One-Off Gallery in Rosslyn, until October 22, in an exhibition called Men and Women.

Twenty-nine paintings are spot lit on the white walls, all but six of them a startling and original approach to single and group portraits. All the figures are symbols rather than individual portraits; thus they represent all of us.

And all but six are of figures cut from one sheet of canvas and glued down onto another. These separate six — all at the warm yellow-brown end of the spectrum and of the same size — were themselves cut from an earlier painting that Kimathi felt was not working properly. It may well be that the act of slicing them up led him to develop cut-outs as a major feature of this, his subsequent work.

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The new pictures are stripped to the bone while retaining a textured matrix of colour and form.

Kimathi is a master of reduction, the Samuel Beckett of painting, whose vision is austere and relentless; nothing is superfluous, no effort is wasted on unnecessary decoration. If it is in the painting, it is in his soul.

This collection began with the four large paintings of an infant in a one-piece romper suit, the Toddler series. They were inspired by his son, Toby, now aged one year and two months.

In giving me his age, Kimathi was as precise as he is with each brush stroke and the positioning of each figure in his meticulous compositions. I am surprised that he did not add how many more days and hours the boy had lived.

Toby has worn the suit and others like it day and night; Kimathi has seen him in little else and became fascinated by them.

One painting shows the toddler in a suit rumpled on the canvas, at his feet a small, red car. He has a white face. The other three show him in the same pose but with his face dark, the suits differentiated by their patterns, buttons and string fastenings.

Kimathi, who carefully considers all aspects of his subjects, compositions and palette (there are few painters who leave so little to chance and are as involved in the minutae of their own work) speaks of his pictures almost as though they had taken him by surprise by arriving uninvited and immaculate, from Outer Space.

“They come as they come,” he told me.

But whether from Mars or Machakos County where he now lives and works, it is two of the largest pictures in this show that deal most overtly with sexual relationships.

In Olive Branches, Kimathi looks at homosexual pairings, while with On and On, he turns his gaze on women with multiple partners.

Olive Branches shows nine couples, all men, arranged from four basic cut-outs with only changes of colour and clothing to differentiate them. Each of the men is carrying an olive branch, allowing a variety of meanings — bringers of peace, and the hope of tolerance from society for their minority group.

In On and On, Kimathi shows six men each escorting the same female figure repeated with minor variations, hooded and robed like the torture victims at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. We are invited to ask who the real victims are — the men sharing the masked woman, or the woman seeking satisfaction with multiple yet predictably repeated partners?

Of the other 17 paintings, two are of groups of five and four men each, the Men in Line series, again variations on the four male cut-outs and 15 are female heads, either bare-necked or wearing broad white collars or necklaces of beads.

It is in these heads from the Large Faces series (three paintings) and the Small Faces (12 pictures) that Kimathi’s technique is brought to fruition, with eyelids and lips rising from the canvas backing, on to which have been painted their eyes and teeth. Their hair, threaded through the cloth, is made of lamp wicks in black, red, yellow or white — a reference back to the artist’s Thunderstorms where each slash of rain was a piece of coloured wick.

The faces were inspired by women Kimathi saw mainly in fashion magazines (a source of inspiration for a previous suite of faces using collage) with their extended eyelashes, heavy, brightly coloured eye shadow and theatrical make-up; more at home in a photo-shoot or on the catwalk, than in the street.

The 3D effect created by the raised eyelids and lips is at first a curiosity, fascinating… and then comes the hit and like most of this artist’s work the paintings are revealed as edgy and more than a little disturbing.

The women become real even as we stare at them on the wall. They stare back and we expect them suddenly to shout, mewl, laugh crazily, or simply sigh. What, we ask, has happened to them that makes them so?

And then it dawns on us… in all these paintings we are really asking about ourselves.

These are major works of art and should be in a museum somewhere.