The world is her canvas


By Sara G. Levin

It is easy to get lost in Cindy Kane’s map series, part of her current exhibition on view at the Cheryl Pelavin gallery through Jan. 13. Distressing for the navigational eye, each collage of countries, colors and geometric shapes leads everywhere and nowhere at once. Squiggles collide with severe shards of soft color, pinned down by webs of jagged lines. Like a smattering of yarn, glass, and sticks, everything is chaotic.

“They are about my sense of displacement, and more political, concerned with the tumult of our times,” Kane said in a phone interview from her Martha’s Vineyard home.

Like a fantastical world atlas, Kane’s maps reflect her own worldview. In “Time Will Tell,” for instance, cut-outs of countries seem to float above a warm sea of earth tones, inversing oceans and land. Even if her paintings are a response to politics — conveying a frenzy inspired by Kane’s disgust of U.S. governance, our involvement in Iraq, and the 2004 Tsunami — they are also, like all of her work in the exhibition, intensely personal.

“The maps were born out of my sense of connection with the Middle East,” said Kane, who is married to an Israeli man. “I have two children, and my husband’s sister lives [in Israel]. It’s very complicated when the grieving process and the weddings are an ocean away. It’s a great joy and also great heartache.”

One painting, “Saba’s Quilt,” is a collection of Kane’s father-in-law’s handkerchiefs that she painted over with bright patterns. Imbedded in some of the squares are templates of numbers written by her children as they were first learning sequential digits.

“The handkerchiefs have a history; they are very endearing, and intimate,” Kane said of her father-in-law’s belongings. “The person who used them was ill and has since died.”

Kane’s style as a self-taught painter echoes American folk art and ancient story-telling. One of her works, titled “Daunting,” a painting of six sheets of blank, lined notebook paper, is a direct homage to American minimalist Agnes Martin. “Cursive” uses layers of children’s script exercises underneath paintings of old dolls and dresses. “Centering” is like a small, primitive version of a Georgia O’Keeffe flower. It poses a circle of pink feathers over a circle of stones, and tiles of children’s handwriting.

Gallery owner Cheryl Pelavin said she admires Kane for her depiction of family history and sensitivity.

“I think many women are ashamed to show this kind of work,” Pelavin said. “The experience of motherhood is so powerful, but very few women will put on a pedestal what being a woman is.”

Extremely conscious of art’s relationship to society, Kane also creates some of her most journalistic paintings on top of magazine covers. She masks publications like Art in America and ArtForum with images of bears, birds, dresses, and airplanes.

“They’re almost like sketchbook pages, but working on the covers makes them feel more precious,” Kane said. “It’s the ultimate chutzpah, putting yourself on there like that. Hopefully they’re funny. As I was doing them, I think that I took them more seriously than I would have on paper.”

Still, one of her most jarring works goes back to her passion for politics. In “Spin,” Kane formed a flower of netted smoke, surrounded by petal tips of burning flames. The flower is fixed over seared pages of an English-language bible. The burned verses illustrate how words can become violent, and the tiny petal/flames echo the thin line between order and discord — a line Kane evokes beautifully.