Going beneath surface to explore whales in art

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Artist Cindy Kane has explored her most recent obsession through her painting. A whale watching adventure, followed by a trip to the Bahamas accompanied by the book “War of the Whales” by Joshua Horwitz (an investigation into the Navy’s use of technology that is threatening the world’s whale population) led Kane to her most recent series of paintings — large-scale stylized images of the world’s largest species.

Of the whale watching trip, the artist says, “That visual experience was profoundly emotional. In the Bahamas, I got a much more intellectual understanding of what was happening. I came back with a much more solid obsession with the subject and it began to permeate my work.”

In interpreting her chosen subject, Kane found herself fascinated with the surface of the humpback whales, whom she had learned to know even better through obsessive viewing of whale videos online. In her artist’s statement, she writes, “I decided to approach the subject from the perspective of their dark, speckled gray skin, whose varying texture, deep tones, wounds and shadowy white scars present a visual narrative of their lives.”

It’s not surprising that Kane has chosen to focus on the texture as well as the history implied in the surface image. The artist relies a lot on texture in her work — getting a grainy effect through dots, grids, and small repetitive patterns and utilizing splatter and other techniques for effect. She also often uses older paintings as a starting point for a new creation, covering up the surface of a previous work with a thin layer of paint that is sometimes faintly apparent in the new image.

“I have always depended on the pentimento of older work to deflect the anxiety of facing a blank canvas,” she writes.

One of the large scale paintings currently on display as part of an exhibit of Kane’s work at the Granary Gallery, provides a good example of the evolution of the artist’s work. A striking image of a flock of birds juxtaposed over a vivid orange swirl started out life as an abstract in muted monochromatic tones. For the painting’s next incarnation Kane added a series of doll figures being swept along the path of the curve. The doll figures morphed into birds and the swirl took on a deep scarlet tinge in the next transposition of the painting before, in the final version, the group of placidly soaring birds was replaced by a flock of dozens of birds who seem to be fleeing some impending danger.

The title of the piece is “Wild Migration” and the image reflects the artist’s perception of the current political climate. “For many many years birds have been part of my visual language,” she says. “Sometimes I use them as a way to create an anxiety-ridden atmosphere. Wild migration is really a comment on our times. I feel like it was a visual reaction to the new administration.”

In a similar manner, the painting “Undertow” was laid over one of Kane’s map paintings. The work features another bright orange arc, this time mirroring the motion of a whale that is represented solely by a a pair of flippers and a bit of underbelly. The original painting is still visible, providing an interesting geometrical abstract element to the work.

Kane’s interest in nature began during her years spent working for the national parks system in the Grand Canyon and Yosemite. Her early years growing up in Washington, D.C., helped shape the artist’s social conscience (although she doesn’t consider herself a political artist in any way) Kane and her husband spent six years living on boats – first a sailboat, then a houseboat — in New York City. The couple, along with their toddler, moved after a storm in the 1990s threatened their existence at the boat basin. Martha’s Vineyard was a natural choice for Kane’s husband, a carpenter and sailor, and the couple raised two daughters here since relocating in 1996.

All of the experiences of Kane’s life have managed to coalesce in her stunning images. Peeling back the layers, one can see faint images, as though emerging from the artist’s subconscious. Like her whale subjects, Kane is exposing herself and her voyage through life, through the intricate surfaces  she creates and the multiple dimensions that she explores.

The Granary Gallery is currently hosting an exhibit of Cindy Kane’s recent work through July 21. Many of Kane’s paintings will continue to be on display at the gallery throughout the summer and fall.