Michael Klein’s still lifes, on view at Collins Galleries in Orleans, Massachusetts, have a timeless quality. The subjects he chooses—fruits, flowers, simple terra cotta or glass vessels—have been popular since antiquity. His compositions are built on the kind of kitchen or studio arrangements that have been a mainstay since the days of Velázquez and Chardin. A limited color palette and filtered light create a sense of melancholy and distance. These meticulously rendered objects seem just out of reach. Bouquet (all works 2012) is deceptively simple: white roses and sprays of tiny purple flowers in a clear glass vase, on a rough wood table. Klein identifies himself as a Classical Realist; he studied at Richard Lack’s Atelier in Minneapolis, the Art Students League and Jacob Collins’s Water Street Atelier in New York. Bouquet is a fine argument for the intelligent craftsmanship fostered by the current neo-academic enterprise. The phrase “academic art” is often associated with crisp drawing and a smooth paint-skin, but today’s traditionalists have also absorbed the more painterly facture of the early modernists.
The surfaces of Klein’s paintings are varied; paint may be thinly applied, built up and lacquered on the same canvas. This textural depth works particularly well in Garden Pots, with terra cotta pots of classical amphora shape in front of an old, crusty black cloth carelessly tacked up on the plaster wall. Tiny green shoots are just visible in the pots. Klein drags his paint to capture the rough texture of the wooden table. In fact, this is not an isolated incident, but a technique he uses pervasively throughout his work. In Visual Music, grapes and tangerines, nestled amid green leaves, are laid out in a frieze along a weathered table. The chipped and battered wood is taupe-grey; the plaster wall that serves as a backdrop is light grey. Heavy impasto creates a convincingly raw texture for the wood. Coloristically, the varied greys tone down the intensity of the orange and purple. Rather than dulling the beauty of the still life, the muted light deepens our response. Klein instills a feeling of temporal remoteness, as if we were uncovering a bit of painting from an old Roman wall.
Through his paint-handling, Klein puts up a scrim between the viewer and the objects he depicts. The patina suggests the mediation of age or memory. While most of his titles are straightforwardly descriptive, a few—like Visual Music and A Moment in Time—point to the philosophical underpinning of his aesthetic. He seems to prefer the slightly forlorn look of a gardener’s work area to the lushness of high-season flowerbeds. In A Moment in Time, he gives us two russet clay pots and a shallow grey dish, poignantly juxtaposed with a pale pink rose, laid across a worn wooden shelf. Does the title refer to the ephemeral freshness of the already cut rose, or to the artist’s distillation of this particular confluence of color, shape and light? The tension between a convincing illusion of the natural world and the autonomy of the painted surface is particularly underscored in Spring Flowers, in which red and white roses—individual stems, rather than grouped in a bouquet—are displayed against a rough-wood backdrop. The space is shallow, and the roses seem to float against the wood. Exuberant brushwork differentiates the harsh texture of the wood from the silkiness of the petals.
Klein works slowly and carefully, a process documented in his 2009 film Flower Painting. Close to two hours long, it is not an instructional DVD, but rather an exploration of the painter’s experience as he sweeps the floor of the studio, prepares the canvas and, with zenlike patience, finesses the transformation of paint into illusion. At first glance, Klein’s well-crafted paintings seem conventional, modest still lifes, traditional in style and subject matter. Studio Lunch—a casual spread of crackers, cheese and grapes—has warmer tonalities than many of his works, and the brushwork looks spontaneous. But he still reminds the viewer that this attractive simulacrum is a fiction. Here, the distancing device is an amber-and-black paint pattern that veils the transpar- ent-window front plane, implicit in the convention of representational illusion. That tortoiseshell veil glides across wall and table, like foxing on an old book illustration. Klein, who has recently returned from several years in Argentina, is also an accomplished painter of figures and interiors. His solo exhibition is on view August 24–September 13, 2012, at Collins Galleries, 12 West Road, Orleans, Massachusetts 02653. Telephone (508) 255-1266. collinsgalleries.com.