Kirby’s ‘Southern Exposure’: Addition by abstraction

To prepare you for the upcoming sturm und drang of summer in Florida, an exhibition of gestural, emotion-filled paintings (in addition to coolly rational collages) is on display at Vero’s Center for Spiritual Care. “Southern Exposure: Works by Mark Kirby” are abstracts inspired equally by New York School paintings of the mid-20th century and the dark side of nature. The 30 works in the exhibition – roughly half of them paintings and the other half smaller works in collage – will be on display through May 31.

A recent transplant from Michigan, Mark Kirby mused about the aesthetic dictum that black does not exist in nature.

“Florida is always depicted as a bright place, but people forget that these huge thunderstorms roll off the ocean that are black. The streetlights will come on because they are tricked into thinking it’s nighttime.”

His Blue Cypress series, for example, was based on one of Kirby’s favorite spots. Represented by three paintings in the show, the series does not depict the cypress trees or alligator-packed waters of Indian River County’s largest lake. Instead, Kirby took as his subject the shadow colors of the woods that surround the lake as well as its tannin-stained depths.

Often, the dark overtakes the light in these works. In Blue Cypress IV, an angry scumble of black partially obscures passages of yellow, clear blue and white. Its manifestation is akin to a sudden thundercloud about to make Paradise a little more interesting.

“I’ve always wanted to come down here to live,” says Kirby, who bought a house on Vero’s mainland not long after moving here from Muskegon.

He settled here 18 months ago, but he is no stranger to the area. His sister, painter Deborah Gooch, and her husband Jim have been in Vero for three decades. Kirby visited them often in recent years. His sister introduced Kirby to a lot of people in Vero’s art scene, among them his girlfriend, pastel artist Dawn Miller.

“Vero’s been like a second home, really,” Kirby says.

Even those who have come to know his work think of him as being of longer duration here; a polestar in its art firmament.

In reality, Kirby has been finding himself in abstract painting for only six years, part of that time under the tutelage of his sister, whose advice he would seek over the phone when he lived up north. In addition to wanting to be warmer (and closer to those he holds dear), Kirby came to Florida for his art’s sake.

“As far as abstraction goes, it’s not a big thing in Michigan. Pictures of Lake Michigan, realism sells.”

Mark’s foray into art began in 2004, when he was laid up, and laid off, from his 15-year career as the district manager and a columnist for the Muskegon Chronicle.

After breaking his back in a fall at work, Kirby went through a few agonizing years of rehabilitation, first from the injury and then from a failed back surgery. Bored and unable to do more physical activities, Kirby began to carve lifelike fish decoys with gently curved tails from scraps of basswood.

Ice spearfishing is done on the frozen lakes of Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and upstate New York, where pike are hunted using a decoy that is lowered through a hole cut in lake ice. An angler will jig (wiggle) the lure with one hand while holding a multipronged spear, its barbs beneath the water’s surface, with the other. The goal is to impale a pike that mistakes the lively decoy for lunch.

Says Kirby, “Pike are big and mean. Normally they come in and hit your lure. A lot of times they come right in and smash it.”

Kirby filled his decoy bellies with molten lead for ballast and stuck sheet metal fins in all the right places before finishing them off with glass eyes and a paint job: speckled trout, rainbow trout, minnow, tadpole. Although molded plastic lures have been made for the purpose for many years, ice fishing purists still use the hand-carved decoys, which can get pretty beat up after repeated pike attacks.

According to Kirby, the pike are not nearly as particular about aesthetics as those who hunt them.

“The pike don’t care,” he says. “The colors that really work are red and white. You can take a piece of wood, paint it red and white and throw it in the water and jig it, and they’re going to come up. They see that color, that contrast, and that’s what they come after.”

With that in mind, Kirby carved his decoys to attract the piscatorial eye of the fisher rather than the fished and included a couple of gag lures – a chicken in a bikini and a mermaid. With just two years of carving experience under his belt, Kirby came in second in an international fish decoy competition, a big deal for those wanting to make a name for themselves in the fish decoy world.

Kirby created about 50 decoys before carving lost its luster for him. He kept a handful of his prizewinners; selling others for a song or giving them as gifts.

Kirby next turned to “weird folk-art paintings.”

“Deb liked them and early on I had a painting of a crow in the ‘Small is Big’ show at Gallery 14. That was the first exhibit I was in,” he says.

He progressed into abstract painting after seeing his sister foray into painting that was more about mark-making and pure color than her previous series of narrative figural works.

To educate himself, Kirby began reading about 20th-century American abstraction and fell in love with “the old abstractionists: de Kooning, Kline, Motherwell.” On a visit to the Grand Rapids Art Museum he saw “a gigantic Cy Twombly” on loan from the Whitney Museum of American Art.

“I sat in front of that Twombly for hours,” he says, declaring the experience as akin to a religious awakening.

“It just clicked with me. I liked the fact that I could be instinctual and I could do things through my mind and body, instead of concentrating on these little nit-picky things.”

When he first began painting his own abstractions, Kirby emulated his sister’s high-keyed palette, but he was determined to find his own voice. He struggled with everything that appeared (to him) to come naturally to her: composition, line and form.

To approach the problem from a new angle he turned to collage, cutting up plates from books on architecture, snipping fragments from handwritten letters, and isolating passages from sheet music. He reunited them – with painted passages, as needed – into abstract pictures.

As his collaged compositions became more assured, his paintings followed suit. In the current exhibition, his painting, “Strand at Dawn” followed a collage with which he was particularly satisfied called “Art Kassel.” Both were executed this year.

“Both have the same structure. I didn’t want to replicate the collage, but I wanted to put what I had been doing in collage on canvas.”

Is Vero’s audience ready for Kirby’s foreboding facture, his shadowy palette?

“A lot of people in Vero are very sophisticated. They’ve seen a lot of good art. They’ve been exposed to Franz Klein, the classic expressionists. They are used to seeing dark paintings,” he says.


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