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Back and forth with Misha Kligman's Threshold at City Ice Arts

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The image of a threshold implies a certain tension, a pause in a marginal space before crossing from an old room or a familiar experience into something new. The pristine white walls and light-soaked gallery inside City Ice Arts provide an ideal stage for this tension in Misha Kligman's solo exhibition, titled Threshold. The airy space contrasts dramatically with Kligman's eight brooding, shadow-swamped oil and wax paintings, which challenge you to cross dimensional thresholds and enter his striking, large-scale environments.

It's hard not to feel dwarfed by Kligman's canvas monoliths — most of which are at least 5 feet tall — and even harder to tear yourself away. Each is its own engaging individual biome of color and technique, but you can track visual themes and motifs through the show. Colors are remixed and repurposed from piece to piece, and mottled cosmic forms lurk in a few of the paintings' backgrounds.

"Our Gardens" creates a lush backdrop of loosely rendered shapes: shrubs or flowers in textured black and green. Like a few of the show's other offerings, it draws the eye toward its center, where another, smaller piece of square canvas is stitched to the original, blaring a pop of red in a garden of neutral tones. The boundaries of the canvas-within-a-canvas restate the show's threshold theme.

Some of Kligman's earlier works seemed influenced by old-school photographic processes, and you notice echoes of that inspiration here. In "The Observer," one of this exhibition's standouts, Kligman literalizes the challenge of viewing and categorizing art. A representational woodland image of a hook-beaked predatory bird is portrayed in rich blues and the red-toned sepias of an old photograph. The squint-inducing low contrast between the colors, however, creates an oil analogue for an underexposed photo or the glare of a strip of negatives. New forms seem to emerge and take root the longer you narrow your eyes at the canvas. The overall effect is stunning (if a bit of a strain on the eyes).

Across the gallery, "Acceptance" is the most steeped-in-light of these works, capturing the legs and lower torso of a nude man in pale brush strokes of seafoam green. The paint here appears thicker and more roughly textured than in some of the artist's other pieces, building up in unexpected places on the canvas. The subtle blue shading on the bottom of the man's feet highlights the vulnerability exposed in his kneeling posture.

Kligman is interested, he writes in his artist's statement, in painting's ability "to both generate meaning and act as its conduit." And he cagily suggests that if his work is successful, it will resist categorization. Fair enough. Nevertheless, his statement hints at a helpful frame of mind for the viewer — "all paintings begin as naked and vulnerable" — and the finished works at City Ice embody that spirit. They invite the observer to approach from a similar place of vulnerability, to engage directly with the bold, moody images and bare feelings on display.

"Ascent," though seductively simple in its composition, is one of the most striking and affecting pieces in the exhibition. A squat wooden staircase, depicted in a remixed seafoam shade similar to the pale green of "Acceptance," leaps out from the painting's deep-black background. Nothing waits at the top of the stair, no landing or destination. In the image's upper third, what seems like an astral-themed nightscape emerges from the backdrop: spotty constellations of color and nebulous swirls of light suggesting the aurora borealis. The rough, pale-green wood against the dark background sets the optimism of ascension, of conquering the final step, against the possibility of dropping into a fathomless cosmos. "Ascent" has an almost indefinable energy; it hangs in the memory long after you step away from it.

"Distance" appears more abstract than some of Kligman's other pieces but doesn't lack structure — angular lines, suggesting a pattern of sidewalk tiles, stretch across the lower third of the canvas on a diagonal. Above, nebulous cloud forms collide and sprawl like an oil slick, the murky browns blending subtly with deep purples and blues. The matte finish appears, upon second glance, almost iridescent.

The painting titled "Threshold" turns out not to be one of Kligman's strongest works here. Its slender tapered candles, surrounding a vase of water-drunk flowers bending their necks to the floor with full red blooms, give the painting a ceremonial feel, with the firelight reflecting off the vase's undulating curves. Yet the technical precision and smooth, finished feel of the painting keep it at an emotional remove.

In its gentle curves and its emphasis on the center, "Threshold" the painting feels a little too cool, a little too straightforward. Threshold the exhibition, though, wields striking emotional power. Kligman's individual bodies and brush strokes coalesce into a complex whole, one that seems to dance tantalizingly on the edge of meaning without crossing over.

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