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All words: Rachel Pafe — All photos: Joshua Feldman

Up close, all that is visible is a vibrant, squirming mass of thickly applied and passionately detracted color and line. Take a few steps back and patterns start to appear; forms surface out of murky backgrounds. The relief at finding this amidst the chaos is visceral, although one isn’t quite certain what has actually been uncovered. This is the beauty of Per Kirkeby’s work: a combination of the soft, mysterious and curvy with the linear, scientific and identifiable. Co-curator Dorothy Kosinski articulates that, “There’s a tension, because they are very luscious, and yet there’s something resistant”.

Trained as both an artist and geologist, Kirkeby reflects a seemingly contradictory affinity for both structure and collapse in his survey of paintings and sculpture on display at the Phillips Collection. What at first appears to be color-rich abstraction proves to be an intricate exploration of not just allusions to the natural and man-made, but to the limits of painting itself.

Phillips after5 (2 of 37)

The chronological exhibition starts with smaller, darker works, and increases in size, scale and vivacity. Each room has a distinctly different mood and feel; the first room, adorned with dark, muddy works, feels brooding and overwrought, while the third room, filled with vivid color juxtaposed with chalk and blackboard paint, feels playful. It additionally includes bronze sculptures that feel like a natural continuation of the artist’s heavy strokes and semi-recognizable forms.

The last two rooms of the show illustrate the most drastic flux. The second to last room contains massive works, such as the lyrical Untitled, in which neon horses appear in the foreground of an expansive stretch of field. The viewer is encouraged to sit and be engulfed by the paintings, whereas in the final room, the light is dimmed, the work subtle and easily overlooked. While the entire show seems to build towards the monumentality of the previous room, the last room contains a medium sized “Prisoner of the Holy Agony I” (2009) and a tiny, black and white video loop of a small black and white landscape photograph. A quiet, romantic air permeates the room and appropriately concludes the show with the lingering question of the inner workings of Kirkeby’s mystical world.

Phillips after5 (17 of 37)

While the exhibition ran upstairs, a large crowd flocked to the Phillips After Five event downstairs, Vampires vs. Zombies. From 5:30 to 8:30 guests heard a gallery talk on the Dark Side of the Phillips, saw students from THEARC demonstrate choreography from Michael Jackson’s Thriller, watched the Washington Ballet go through basic techniques and samples from past shows, sipped zombie cocktails and tasted red wine from Robert Kacher Selections.

The Phillips Collection proved that they can produce both intelligent exhibitions and entertainment. And make quite a cocktail.

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