KEN KELLY'S NEW exhibition at Howard House shows the painter making big, good changes in his work while retaining a basic approach that he's used for nearly a decade. Kelly, a Seattle painter whose appearance does not betray his mid-40s age, has shown widely here for around 15 years, first at Cliff Michael, then Greg Kucera, and currently at Howard House. Since about 1992 he's specialized in waving tendril-like forms, arranged in mirror image across the width of the support. Since that time, his Byzantine forms have multiplied and his compositions have grown increasingly complex, while for the most part he has stuck to a mottled black and smoke-stained white palate, with only glimpses of color. The new show retains his signature tendril forms, but his approach to them has changed radically.

First, he has simplified his forms. Having exhausted his explorations of dense compositions, he now fills a large canvas with a single, more or less unified form. His palate has changed, too, as he introduces a couple of rich reds and an acidic yellow to play off of the white or black. By reducing the complexity of his forms, he draws attention to his increasingly assured work with surfaces, which have become richly variegated.

Kelly's earlier work seemed to refer to ancient forms, and his shapes were often compared with tribal tattooing styles. Here the reference seems more direct, recalling paint dripping down a surface, like a stylized version of Morris Louis' paint drips on raw canvas. Kelly's shapes remain tightly controlled, stenciled onto the canvas, but what happens on either side of his stenciled edges is completely open.

The new show allows further focus on Kelly's surfaces, as it consists of merely three large paintings, hung one to a wall. Such spareness of presentation is almost unprecedented in Seattle galleries, and is particularly welcome here. One painting of the three stands out: Burn (2000), the most recent. A broad, bright red form all but fills the top half of the canvas, extending almost to the edges and curving downward in the middle. A series of Kelly's signature wiggles extends from the bottom, weaving downward. Kelly works the paint on the broad surface of the red form into wavy vertical stripes, mimicking the squiggles that hang from the form's bottom. As he's using a metallic red paint, the wavy brushstrokes shimmer in the light, resembling the flames of custom hot-rod design.

Kelly's simplified forms and experiments with color and brushstroke lend themselves to more directly representational interpretation than his earlier, more complex and more dedicatedly abstract forms. And the representations, at least from where I was standing, seemed a little naughty. Tongue (1999), on the wall facing Burn, is dominated by a triangle form in black on a yellow background. The tendrils beneath it read as curly hairs, and thus the image as a whole begins to resemble, well, a pubic bush -- maybe one emerging from a bath and trailing water. Burn itself is not entirely unpubic, though it also could be read as an egg being fertilized by 16 sperm, simultaneously. Beat, the third painting in the show's triad, has a smaller, less overtly triangular form at its top, and if it looks like anything, it's a spider. Is this reading a red herring, then? Probably. The hot-rod reading of the red metallic paint and flame forms is a little more defensible than the mons veneris reading. But the point is that by simplifying his forms, Kelly has made his abstractions more readily available to direct readings in general, preferably multiple ones -- a plus in my book. Abstraction tends to benefit when it flirts with representation, as it has since its beginnings. One look at the early drawings of Ellsworth Kelly (unrelated, as far as I know), where he created abstract forms by careful framings of everyday images, confirms this point.

This Kelly is also to be credited for his skillfully balanced compositions. Each canvas is dominated by a single form in its top half, but none appear top-heavy. His trailing tendrils balance the frame without grounding the form; rarely do they touch the bottom of the picture plane. Their downward trajectories give the central forms an upward thrust, as if they were jet streams, but the overall sense is not one of motion, or of a tension between competing forces. His forms sit still, placid, encompassing, confident, solid.

Support The Stranger