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Notes on the 19th, 20th, and 21st Centuries: Paintings by Jeffrey Kronsnoble
by Jay Williams
Jeffrey Kronsnoble's paintings and drawings are poetic commentaries -- he calls them "notes" -- about the struggle between order and chaos in modern life and contemporary art. Kronsnoble appreciates the tension between order and chaos, and in his art seeks to reconcile these by manipulating the various elements of the composition. Kronsnoble jokingly, but also seriously, refers to an overarching "general theory of relativity" when making his art: "Relationship is the most important word in talking about art," he says. "The relationship between the parts is all important. It doesn't matter what the parts are-figures, design elements, whatever. This is true no matter whether the art is realistic or abstract or anything in between." The correct balance, the ideal set of relationships, occurs when "it hovers between chaos and order. It therefore looks like life. This being in a state of grace is so much like life that it's a metaphor for life; whether it's abstract or representational, it mirrors life."
To create this delicate balance, Kronsnoble -- like Robert Rauschenberg -- may be acting in the gap between art and life. But he has seen "life" in somewhat different terms from artists of Rauschenberg's generation because he has addressed different issues in his work. Rauschenberg's art and life have been decidedly urban and technological in their orientation. In contrast, Kronsnoble's art since the 1970s has mediated between the natural world, the traditions of Western art, and postmodern social concerns. Compared with members of the 1960s avant-garde, he has a different sense of his place in time. Kronsnoble's awareness of relationships across time periods is evident in his choice of subject matter and imagery. He often juxtaposes three types of images whose meanings for contemporary society have changed radically since the 1970s: figures from the history of art between the Renaissance and the nineteenth century, elements of the natural world that have existed in their present form for millions of years, and contemporary figures that represent varying aspects of the masculine and feminine. He has employed appropriated images of Cupid and Psyche, Adam and Eve, Aphrodite, Battista Sforza, and Federico da Montefeltro, as well as photographs of Marilyn Monroe, anonymous female models, the forms of natural objects such as sticks and stones, and seemingly traditional landscape subjects. The resulting works of art become commentaries in visual terms about complex relationships between nature and culture, often in light of feminine and masculine archetypes.
Kronsnoble's "notes" on these transitory relationships are, in the words of David Salle, "about things in between the obvious things." The chaotic element in Kronsnoble's paintings reflects the artist's role in selecting and orchestrating disparate elements: "I use unlike elements in a work of art to add an element of chaos to the work, to make it more reflective of life. But to simply put unlike elements in a work of art just makes a mess. The trick is to relate them." Kronsnoble, who often has to work hard to bring order out of chaos, especially appreciates the tension of not knowing whether order will win out till the last moment. He doesn't like the order of a composition to be too pat or predictable, and may feel that he has to introduce some chaotic element back into a painting. "I mess it up and then have to bring order to it once again," he explains. He likes it when the composition just barely finds stasis, balances at a point between stability and anarchy. He says, "Since I'm an optimist, order wins."
His method centers on creating a poetic relationship within the work, especially through "metamorphosis, progression, or variation." Again, the element of time is common to all these relationships, the implication being that the delicate balance found in a Kronsnoble image is only possible as art. In life, it could never last. As viewers, we are privileged to partake in this moment of stasis and enjoy it. Kronsnoble's images, such as Box X-I (1984), communicate a sense of metamorphosis or progression by leaving certain aspects of the composition to the viewer's imagination. At the intersection of shapes, where one recognizable form disappears behind another, or when a fragment of an image is all that can be discerned, time is momentarily held in check. Though the mind searches for completion, it may find only a contrasting element, perhaps a differently colored shape or a piece of another image. How many disparate elements of the composition can be in play at any one time is Kronsnoble's challenge. Too many competing colors, too many confused lines, and the composition may not work. The riotous color and line of the Jan Davidsz. de Heem still life in the lower right of Postcard XLE (1997) threaten to overwhelm the architectural elements in the center of the composition, but are finally balanced by the restrained deep space on the opposite corner of the composition.
The poetry of Kronsnoble's compositions often depends on these areas of mystery to be filled in by the imagination of the viewer. Indeterminate spaces or lacunae can occur where once-recognizable images have been cropped, edited, smudged, merged, or overlaid with other elements. In Postcard 6C (1996), Kronsnoble overlaps images of the masculine and the feminine in a cut-and-paste fashion that leaves some figures clearly visible and recognizable (Michelangelo's Adam and Eve from the Sistine Chapel, for example), while completely or partially masking others. Those which are most obscured become the most tantalizing. In this way Kronsnoble's paintings parallel some of the poetic images of Jorie Graham, as in this excerpt from "Pollock and Canvas":
Or this, from her poem "The Guardian Angel of the Swarm":
Kronsnoble did not discover how to express such complex relationships until the mid-1970s. In his earlier work he struggled to find a combination of style and subject that did not owe so much to the overpowering influences of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Willem de Kooning and Robert Rauschenberg. Kronsnoble came to maturity as an artist during the years when these artists gained fame, the final years of the modernist era, when abstract expressionism was nearly played out and pop art became fashionable. That he learned to be fluent in the artistic vocabulary of both abstract expressionism and pop is evident in his work of the late sixties. But, his heart was never with the modernist avant-garde.
Kronsnoble rejected Clement Greenberg's notion that "a modernist work of art must try, in principle, to avoid communication with any order of experience not inherent in the most literally and essentially construed nature of its medium. Among other things, this means renouncing illusion and explicit subject matter. The arts are to achieve concreteness, 'purity,' by dealing solely with their respective selves -- that is, by becoming 'abstract' or nonfigurative." Kronsnoble adopted the language of abstraction without renouncing illusionistic art. By 1968, he was making paintings that he calls "ambitious," often referring to the work of historical masters such as Ingres and Courbet. "Courbet's Artist in the Studio drove me crazy," he says. He challenged himself to make representational paintings, such as his group portraits of the University of South Florida art faculty based on Henri Fantin-Latour's A Studio in the Batignolles (1870). Avoiding Greenberg's ideal of self-referential "purity," his art incorporated increasingly complex layers of experience: personal, cultural, and historical. Kronsnoble learned to manipulate elements of visual language that sometimes suggested a generally understood meaning, such as historical art images, details of architecture, or a nude female figure. At the same time he avoided making tidy allegories by incorporating visual elements that do not have any specific meaning -- abstract shapes, passages of brushstrokes, patterns of hatching in charcoal.
In 1974, Kronsnoble realized that he could completely remove images and objects from their usual contexts, deconstruct their meanings, and build completely new contexts for them. This insight came during a plane trip west to visit his sister, when he was sipping a martini and enjoying the long view of the Pacific Ocean. While in this meditative state, he had the idea to make collages of photos, cloth, and other materials, place them in a shadow box, photograph them carefully, and make illusionistic (trompe l'oeil) paintings of them. This was the beginning of the Box Series -- the first of his pieces that he considered "my own idea, my own work." This compelling concept occupied him for the next fifteen years.
Within this long series he explored conceptual form without predetermined content, paralleling the archetypes of the human psyche that "arise as structuring tendencies in the human psyche" as " 'forms without content,' " in Jung's words. Kronsnoble's box compositions provided new environments for his deconstructed images. The context within a box might be natural, rural, urban, or perhaps abstract (spiritual, inner-directed). He often included visually arresting linear elements such as masking tape, string, wire, or strips of cloth to create a more surreal final illusion. In the boxes, Kronsnoble treated recognizable imagery from the external world as if it were abstract, because images and other elements were always put in service of the abstract idea. As Kronsnoble worked through his Box Series and, later his Postcard Series, he was astounded by the power of his creations: "I thought only God could create something new, but I found that I could combine A + B and get C, which was something new."
With the Postcard Series, he began to emphasize appropriated images from his large collection of museum postcards. "I felt that I wasn't just stealing an appropriated image, because I combined it with something else to make a new thing." The Postcard Series centered on images that, historically, have had well-defined archetypal meanings. Their psychic energy could be subverted to serve a creative purpose by joining them in surprising ways. In Postcard XXXIE (1996), Kronsnoble presents the viewer with a half-length monochromatic figure of Marilyn Monroe layered over by Indonesian shadow puppets, and flanked by a Renaissance-era St. Sebastian and a Bouguereau goddess. Fashioned from these dissimilar avatars of the ideal, the composition may communicate the presence of something divine, but none of these figures carries a traditionally assigned meaning. His gods, goddesses, Renaissance burghers, and religious figures -- once symbols of unity and stability -- now seem to represent contradiction and paradox. But he does not strip them of their meanings only to abandon them. Married to other images in Kronsnoble's art, they take on what Hans Hofmann called a "mystic overtone" and a surreal "spiritual character."
Kronsnoble's dioramas of the 1990s were essentially large shadow boxes that combined elements of the Box Series with those of the Postcards. He made ten of them. "In the rear of the box would be a painting, and in the front of the box I could put rope, twigs -- things to play with as sculpture." Diorama X (1990) is markedly different from earlier dioramas that recapitulate his interest in the female figure and appropriated images from art history. It is based in the same image as Mountain Landscape III (1991), but incorporates three-dimensional sticks and twigs, sometimes heightened with gray or blue paint. With this piece, Kronsnoble moved beyond postmodernist concerns with semiotics, acknowledging the primary source of his creative energy.
In the Box Series, the Postcard Series, and the dioramas, Kronsnoble was working in the tradition of Pablo Picasso, Kurt Schwitters, and Max Ernst, who first explored the possibilities of the collage technique. Like Ernst, Kronsnoble has explored the potential for the "transmutation" of dissimilar images into a new and fresh -- often otherworldly -- artistic whole. When Kronsnoble taught a class in collage, he pointed out to his students that "collage is very democratic -- requires no [manual] skills." Why would an artist who possesses finely honed drawing and painting skills give himself over to a process in which these are not required? Kronsnoble answered this question by quoting the poet Charles Simic in the same class syllabus: "The commonplace is miraculous if rightly seen, if recognized." By using collage as his starting point, Kronsnoble ensures that technique serve the underlying concept, the joining of elements taken for granted to make something new and marvelous.
Kronsnoble's recent excursions into representational and abstract painting, as in the Mountain Landscape series (1991) and 2006 Abstract (2006), are declarations that the function of art has little to do with choosing the correct historical style. As Eric Hobsbawm has pointed out, "Measuring merit by chronology had never suited the arts: creative works had never been better merely because they were old, as was thought in the Renaissance, or because they were more recent than others, as the avant-gardes held. . . . On the other hand it was still both possible and necessary to apply the distinction between what was serious and what was trivial. . . ." As an artist, Kronsnoble's concerns are not about style or imagery, but about the great emerging problems of culture.
Kronsnoble's art communicates the potential for achieving wholeness in a chaotic world. It reveals the surreal poetry of everyday existence, by reconciling the contradictions between urban and rural, nature and culture, unifying past and present. From the conjunction of disparate elements in unlikely relationships, a surprising spirituality emerges. In life as in art, he reminds us, stability is possible if we view the difficult relationships between our beliefs and our realities as the making of a challenging collage.
1 . Jeffrey Kronsnoble, unpublished interview by Jay Williams, January 6, 2008, Tampa, Florida. All subsequent direct quotations are from this interview unless otherwise noted.
2 . See Rauschenberg, untitled statement, in Dorothy C. Miller, ed., Sixteen Americans, with statements by the artists and others, (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1959), 58. Rauschenberg could be referring to urban European Dada art:
3 . David Salle, "A Conversation with David Salle," with Dorine Mignot, Bulletin Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, (1999): 20, quoted in Christopher Hauke, Jung and the Postmodern: The Interpretation of Realities (London: Routledge, 2000), 284.
4 . Jeffrey Kronsnoble, personal communication with the author, January 22, 2008.
5 . This phrase appears in a "teaching aid" that Kronsnoble kept under his class rolls on a clipboard that he took to all his classes at the University of South Florida.
6 . Jorie Graham, The End of Beauty (New York: Ecco Press, 1987), 86.
7 . Jorie Graham, The Errancy (Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco Press, 1997), 81.
8 . Clement Greenberg, "Sculpture in Our Time" in Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969, vol. 4 of The Collected Essays and Criticism, ed. John O'Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 56, reprinted from Arts Magazine 32, no. 9 (June 1958).
9 . Christopher Hauke, Jung and the Postmodern: The Interpretation of Realities (London: Routledge, 2000), 199.
10 . Hans Hofmann, Search for the Real and Other Essays, ed. Sarah T. Weeks and Bartlett H. Hayes, Jr., trans. Glenn Wessels (Andover, Mass.: Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, 1948), reprinted in Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics, ed. Herschel B. Chipp (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), 541.
11 . Max Ernst, "What Is the Mechanism of Collage?" in Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics, ed. Herschel B. Chipp (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), 427.
12 . Jeffrey Kronsnoble, Syllabus, ART 4806 and ART 6940, University of South Florida, spring 2004.
13. Charles Simic, Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell (Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco Press, 1992), 18.
14 . Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991
(New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 520.
About the author
Jay Williams is Curator at the Morris Museum of Art.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Nicole McLeod of the Morris Museum of Art for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
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