The premier solo exhibition from Michael Klein, at Arcadia Fine Arts in New York City this spring, was an auspicious debut. The 27-year-old painter trained at academic ateliers in his native Minnesota before apprenticing with Jacob Collins. Klein’s paintings, divided into figure studies and still lifes, demonstrate both meticulous craftsmanship and considerable individual personality. The somber, limited color palette he has chosen to explore yields interesting results. White is the star in two still lifes, reflecting a nineteenth-century preoccupation from Whistler’s “White Girls” to Impressionist snowscapes. In Mementoes (all works 2007), a white throw tumbles across a dusty brown chest of drawers; the textural distinction between silky fabric and plush fur is deftly rendered. The arrangement of elements in Floral Interior is more complex: in a lumber-strewn corner of a room sits an old-fashioned, whitewashed treadle sewing machine, with decorative curves and a chipped surface, topped by a clear vase full of white chrysanthemums. White plays an important supporting role in one of the figure studies, Recuerdos. A melancholy young woman, wrapped in a black coat with a brown fur collar, sits in a dull green armchair. The dark figure is set off by the paneled white walls of the interior behind her—a sort of cameo in reverse—and by a spray of white flowers leaning in from out of frame, a touch that again suggests Whistler. In all three paintings, Klein plays off the freshness of the white against matte, weathered darks in surprisingly zesty ways.
The armchair is a favorite prop, appearing in a nappy brown incarnation in At Rest, which depicts a girl in a lilac dress, dozing. While competently executed, this example of a familiar studio trope does not really advance the compositional formula. Some of the works, such as The Next Day, showing a girl in bed from the back, have an erotic undercurrent. The most striking painting in the exhibition, Along the Path, is also the most nineteenth-century-looking. A young woman in a long black dress, her head wrapped in a white scarf, glances over her shoulder to meet the viewer’s eyes. She carries a black umbrella, which beautifully silhouettes her face and brings a dramatic shape to the formal dynamic. The path of the title seems to be cutting through the French countryside of a Barbizon painting, with spindly trees under an overcast sky. There is a suggestion of the peasant genre as practiced by Jules-Adolph Breton, although Breton’s figures are more anonymous; faces and figures are usually made of the same daubs of color as the haystacks and sunsets. Klein’s tighter painthandling in the figure—and the self-awareness of the young woman confronting us—have a different kind of energy. He outlines the figure with the tensile clarity of a Pre-Raphaelite, yet avoids the bogus charm of mere historical quotation. Along the Path suggests the continuing viability of this stylistic idiom, in the right hands. It will be interesting to follow Klein’s career and see what directions he pursues. Arcadia Fine Arts, 51 Greene Street, New York, New York 10013. Telephone (212) 965-1387. On the web at www.arcadiafinearts.com