Wisconsin artist Steve Firkins throws a curve at 20th century.


Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)
January 27, 1998 | Abbe, Mary 
 

New art movements are pretty rare in Minnesota. This is what you might call a low-theory art environment: Artists may experiment a bit, but generally they stay inside the lines. 

So the debut of Wisconsin painter Steve Firkins' "Theory of Curvism" at Flanders Contemporary Art (in the Wyman Building, 400 1st Av. N., Minneapolis) is something of an occasion. 

This is Firkins' first major exhibition and it is appropriately ambitious. Spanning about 20 years, it includes paintings, sculpture, photographs and even birch-bark masks, all designed to explicate the artist's ideas about the failings of late 20th-century life and art. 

The problem, as Firkins sees it, is that the world is in thrall to the rectangle, the square, the triangle, the cube and other straight-lined forms. Along with such "unnatural" shapes come equally constricting and pernicious ideologies: an overreliance on reason, excessive materialism, much machinery and robotic behavior. 

Identifying Cubism as the artistic expression of this wrongheaded world view, Firkins set out to slay the Cubist dragon with Curvism. Firkins derived Curvism from childhood observation of the natural world. In practice, Firkins' Curvism is a very linear art form with a restricted palette of white, gray, black, flesh and - in homage to his hometown of Blue Earth, Minn. - various shades of blue. Firkins' images are pictographs, his style spare to the point of minimalism. The show includes glowing white canvases in the shapes of circles and ellipses, sometimes juxtaposed with dark rectangular canvases. 

He draws angular and curvaceous figures on solid backgrounds of white, blue or gray and makes abstract landscapes consisting of curved blue "horizon" lines on white. Two large canvases embody Curvism's confrontation with Cubism. One features five angular women evidently inspired by Picasso's famous 1907 prototypical-Cubist canvas "Demoiselles d'Avignon. The other is a curvaceous interpretation of the same figures. In both, flat sky-blue backgrounds enhance the warm flesh tones of figures defined by narrow lines. The refreshing graphic simplicity of Firkins' paintings is surprisingly successful thanks to the quizzical grace of his lines. His figures, blessed with the winsome charm of James Thurber's famous New York cartoons, seem genuinely puzzled, even curious about each other. There isn't a contentious bone - or line - in them; given half a chance they'd all want to make peace, not war. 

Firkins' sculptures are similarly harmonious, consisting of small tables - painted in his usual palette - on which he's arranged polished rocks and moveable glass ovals. Simple birch-bark masks and photos of Firkins wearing them are another manifestation of Firkins' back-to-nature ideology.

The artist , a counselor and family therapist, uses the masks in woodsy rituals near his Wisconsin home. Given the vagaries and caprice of the contemporary art world, it's unlikely that Curvism will set the world on its ear, as Cubism did nearly a century ago. But there's something about these paintings that works. They do glow. The lines are winning, the paintings are more sophisticated than they at first appear, and Firkins has made a memorable debut.