by Peter Selz

W hen Marianne Kolb was in her early 20s, living in Switzerland, and working in business, she came across Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, a book that exerted pivotal influence on the young woman. Marianne had grown up on a farm in an isolated Alpine village near Bern. Her family had no use for her artistic talent and, she recalls that she felt some kind of kinship with Gregor, an awkward young man, son of a harsh father, employee of an abusive boss, who was turned into monstrous insect. Marianne knew it was time to leave and she travelled across the ocean and the continent to land in San Francisco, where she studied jewelry and worked as a goldsmith but soon realized, that she really wanted to be a painter. She proceeded to study at the California College of Arts and Crafts (now the California College of the Arts) with two inspiring teachers, Leigh Hyams and Fred Reichman.

Marianne Kolb does not use ordinary paint, but takes powdered pigment which she mixes with water and applies with her fingers, house-brushes and a large stainless steel knife to the canvas. She usually uses an undercoat of red or orange, which in some pictures is allowed to emerge from the layers of paint. Finally she applies a shiny varnish, resulting in the smooth surfaces of her paintings. Her personal imagery, the distortion of the faces, derives from direct observation of individuals transmuted by her own feelings which become fully known to her during the painting process.

Her painting bears some relationship to work by Bay Area Figure painters and sculptors. We think of the isolated human figures, asserting their presence in Nathan Oliveira’s paintings and Stephen de Staebler’s bodies which are commanding despite being broken. The feeling of alienation and estrangement of the human is also the essence of Antonioni’s films and of the tragic monosyllabic poetry by Paul Celan, whose work was an inspiration for Kolb. Kolb’s figures, often androgynous, stand on thin legs and against luminous backgrounds. Their garments, at time translucent, at times opaque are often blurred, but strong in coloration, the faces express melancholy, anxiety, even despair. These paintings represent a legacy of Northern European painting–Munch, Beckmann, Bacon, and Baselitz are artists that come to mind. Her paintings of “Unrelated Memories” with interpretive titles such as The Stranger, Holding Ground, Looking Back, Sense of Loss, Enshrouded give added access to the meaning of these compelling paintings which affirm the comic tragedy of human existence.