Art Review: Marcy Dunn Ramsey and Michael Kahn by Mary McCoy

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There are two shows on view at Massoni Art through June 18 that interweave both on the gallery’s walls and in the mind’s eye. Full of playfulness and joy, the graceful silhouettes of marsh grasses and leafy aquatic plants caught in watery light are the subject of both Marcy Dunn Ramsey’s “Playing on the Edge” and Michael Kahn’s “just this.” There are a few broader views of tidal wetlands, sometimes with dry land in the distance, but most of their images are so close up that you feel you are practically part of the scene.

It’s a funny thing to see two artists—one a painter, one a photographer—exploring such similar ideas that their images look almost alike, at least at first glance. Ramsey’s “Shallows” and Kahn’s “Aquatic Plant Series 1” both present confusions of reeds and arrow-shaped leaves spiking up from the calm, shallow water where their reflections float above the bits of decaying reeds and leaves that lie ghostly beneath the water’s surface. One is a colorful oil painting, the other a subtly toned photograph, but both present intimate views of the abundant life that flourishes in the wetlands bordering our waterways.

Although the two didn’t conspire to create lookalike images, both are long-term Massoni artists and well aware of one another’s work. There’s no doubt that each has inspired the other, at least in terms of the formal aspects of subject matter and composition but both artists have their own unique voices.

Marcy Ramsey, “Shallows,” oil

Marcy Ramsey, “Shallows,” oil

Ramsey has been specializing in kayak-view perspectives of our local wetlands for many years. Her exuberant canvases filled edge to edge with colorful, dancing reeds and their watery reflections have been shown internationally and are familiar to anyone who follows art on the Eastern Shore.

Kahn, on the other hand, eschews color in favor of the luminous, infinitely subtle range of shades offered by toned silver gelatin photography. Internationally known for his stunning photographs of sailing vessels slicing through billowing waves, in his quieter moments, he, too, explores the intimate details of wetlands, those fragile, ever-changing thresholds between water and land.

Wetlands are essential to the health of the planet. The ecological significance of these fecund borderlines where water and land mingle can’t be overemphasized and thankfully is becoming much more widely appreciated. These two artists, along with many others, are helping to put the focus on the delicate beauty of these long overlooked places.

There’s a feeling of enchantment as you glance around the gallery and find yourself surrounded by shimmering water and stands of marsh grass. Both Kahn and Ramsey are fascinated by the rhythms and abstract qualities of the never-quite-vertical reeds and their reflections in rippling water, and both delight in capturing sunlight and the reflections of clouds on the water’s surface. It’s like being in the midst of a visual conversation about the meeting of water, sky and the earthy life cycle of plants as they grow, mature, die and return their nutrients to the fertile marsh.

True to the character of wetlands, everything in these works is in transition. Tides are moving in and out, light is shifting, and the grasses and leafy plants are changing with the seasons. These are joyful, playful images as both artists happily explore the distortions and calligraphic squiggles created by the reflections of grasses in rippling water and the comic dimples encircling stems emerging from the water. As animated as cartoon characters, these grasses reach and bend and gesticulate to one another. Kahn finds two groups of leafy plants and reeds seeming to carry on a discussion, while Ramsey captures reeds dancing together in sweeping curves and angles. The yielding gentleness of the tip of a reed slipping into the water in Kahn’s “Aquatic Plant Series 3” is echoed by the broken but still upright reeds in Ramsey’s “Threnody,” whose title refers to a lament or wailing song.

Still, the differences between these two artists’ works go beyond painting versus photography, chief among them being the contrast between Ramsey’s vivid, often surprising colors and Kahn’s silvery tones.

Michael Kahn, “Aquatic Plant Series 1,” toned silver gelatin photograph

Michael Kahn, “Aquatic Plant Series 1,” toned silver gelatin photograph

Kahn takes you into quiet, contemplative realms. Seeking out subtleties and radiance, he finds pure beauty in the collective gestures of reeds reaching skyward and such delicate details as droplets of water on leaves and sets them off against rising mists and the glow of an unseen sun. His images shimmer like molten silver and lean into transcendence and spirituality.

Ramsey, by contrast, is a mischief-maker. Marsh grasses, generally light green or beige in real life, show up in her paintings in wacky hues from bright orange to turquoise to maroon or even lime green. What looks like a realistic scene at a distance (note the almost photographic sheen of the water in “Shallow”) disintegrates close up into networks of lines and dabs of color hovering over strangely tilted, flat expanses of blue, aqua or green connoting water. Her canvases are as lively as illustrations in a storybook and equally as compelling.

While faithful to the beauty of these marshes, they are also filled with little jokes. Unlike the perfectly mirrored images in Kahn’s photographs, Ramsey’s don’t necessarily match what’s being reflected, and when they are distorted in rippling waves, their colors can turn into something resembling the stripes on a T-shirt. The realism of her paintings, if it can be called that, comes from her deep familiarity with marshes—the way their grasses grow and tangle, the way reflections play across the water. Within these parameters, she’s free to poke and prod and experiment with color, line, form, composition, with just as much abandon as any Abstract Expressionist.

The flavor of Ramsey’s and Kahn’s works may be very different, but the most significant thing they share is a sense of wonder as they explore the unique character of these places at particular moments in time. Poised tenuously on the threshold between land and water, these wetlands teem with vitality. You see things growing, flourishing, dying back, and decomposing—nature busily fulfilling its own potential. It’s a kind of affirmation of the rightness of the ongoing cycles of life that somehow puts our own lives into perspective.

 

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