Exhibition Catalog: New Images of Man and Woman

by Jeremy Graves

S wiss-born Marianne Kolb (1958- ) discovered painting relatively late. She was raised in an isolated village outside of Bern, where most of her time was occupied with farming chores. Kolb says of her own strict, patriarchal family that they “considered [art] a form of laziness. The only thing that mattered was hard work.” In college, Kolb studied business.

After graduating, almost on a whim, she decided to move half-way across the world to Berkeley, where she made the acquaintance of various members of the East Bay art community. She became a goldsmith’s apprentice, then a goldsmith and jeweler herself. She enrolled in drawing classes and taught herself to make prints and stained glass. One day, a friend gave her an old easel and a paint box as a gift. Says Kolb, “I finally found what I was destined to do.”

Her genre-defying output is difficult to categorize. There is a rough, improvisational quality to much of her work. Kolb, who doesn’t use a brush or palette, mixes the color straight onto the canvas, moving it around with knives and her own fingers, often to music playing in the background. She rarely produces individual, stand-alone paintings, preferring instead to work in series.

Kolb’s art is preoccupied with the figure, and specifically, with the figure considered in isolation. Often no more than smudges of color shaped into the vaguest of human contours, they stand alone on the canvas, silhouetted, ageless, sexless, against a luminous background. And yet, for all their anonymity, each figure is quite distinct, an effect Kolb achieves through her marvelous use of color, the suggestiveness of the spare outline of her forms, and the tortured texture of the paint literally scratched into the canvas by her nails. These can be seen as spiritual portraits; the realistic appearance of Kolb’s subjects are not as important to her as their inner quality, the aura that they give off. Indeed, this religious or mystical inclination is apparent in the titles of several of her series, including “Monks,” “Marked,” “Emanations,” and a few pieces dedicated to “W. Whitman.” While meditative, their emotional range is broad, spanning from a moroseness reminiscent of Francis Bacon to the sunny playfulness of her “Aging Dancer” sequence. But all her work, perhaps because of its improvisatory nature, is suffused with a dynamic energy. There’s a lightness of touch, along with, one senses, a great sympathy for her subjects. Kolb is a delightful and affecting artist who deserves wide recognition.