Reflections on Science Candy, an exhibition of paintings by Donn Kidd

By Thomas Goodwyn


Close your eyes.

            That proposal is neither counter-intuitive nor waggish when contemplating a starting point for Science Candy, a recent exhibition of paintings at the Central Madison, Wisconsin Public Library by artist Donn Kidd.  We might say “close your eyes” to build suspense prior to the presentation of a gift, and “close your eyes” is usually among the first suggestions at the onset of a guided meditation.  Correspondingly, the often cheerful, often complex paintings in Science Candy make us curious about what we might be looking at and honor our subjective interaction with what we do see.  As stated by artist Donn Kidd, the “…paintings playfully attach moments to moments and ideas to objects.  These objects, though entangled with humorous cognitive and perceptual errors, remain saturated with a retinal attention to the tangible.”

            That allusion to sight aligns with the shape Donn Kidd has chosen for many of his paintings – a circle, the shape of an ocular iris.  To enable this atypical format, he uses wood as the surface for his acrylics.  Among the circular paintings is “The Ensorcellor”.  Here, the artist places an offset green circle within a yellow marquise shape emerging from a membrane of rose, dark green, and brown.  From the edges are teal, lavender, and salmon colored tributaries joining into a central focal point of deep blue and black.  Combined, these components are like a primitive abstraction for the interior workings of the eye.  This idea is refined in “Occultation” in which numerous pastel donut-shapes (torus shapes) are elegantly interwoven.  A half-bubble of pink and partial-ring of black stand out among the hemi-tori of light violet, sky blue, periwinkle, and olive green.

            Building off these optic themes, and emphasizing circular patterns, Kidd utilizes a ring motif in several paintings.  In “The Signal”, the rings are mostly non-primary colors, arranged in alluring contrasts and placed in two sections within the circle format, one encompassing roughly 210 degrees and the other 150.  The larger of the sections is dominated by a lively kelly green while the smaller section breaks this pattern and cautions us with two rings of yellow.  “Red Shift” again sections the painting, this time by 270 and 90 degrees.  This marks a transition in a center wedge from deep green to red and another transition in the outer ring from lavender to rust.  A wedge from this painting seems replicated in “The Pinch”, which expands the backgrounds of lavender and rust and pinches its central rings.  The sectioning of these colorful paintings brings to mind pie-charts and the moving, rotating path of a radius dial on a radar screen.  They allude to the science in the candy.

            With “The Proximity”, the idea of candy contrasts with its almost comic, para-military title.  In this painting, deep yellow rings are variegated with other rings of daffodil yellow, white, and gold.  On first glance, the viewer is likely to associate the painting with the swirls in a giant lollipop, but these are rings, not swirls, and while there may be a temptation to link the motif to op-art, the rings do not “play tricks” or produce a physical viewing strain.  Kidd’s rings, even the pinched ones, seem naturally and thankfully imprecise, like the rings in a log of wood.

            Two paintings, one circle and one oval shaped, serve as bridges between the “eye abstracts” and “ring series”.  The oval-shaped painting, titled “Head, Thorax and Abdomen” has the pastel colors of “Occultation” livened with the kelly green and magenta from “The Signal”.  Its puzzle piece shapes are seen again in “The Planet of S”, which uses many of the secondary colors seen in “The Signal” and adjoins arches of black and midnight blue.  The vibrant core, two placements of the letter S, and the symbol of infinity may remind some viewers of way psychedelia found its way into animated sci-fi programs on Saturday morning television in the late 60s and early 70s.

            Taken together, the compositions in these circular paintings from Science Candy call to mind geometric abstraction, in particular the work of Robert and Sonia Delaunay or Ilya Bolowtsky and Bryce Hudson.  The latter two of these four artists have often composed on a circle shaped canvass, but where these artists’ imagery tends toward the exact, Donn Kidd’s images are more organic.  He doesn’t impose images on his circle structures.  By allowing the images and circle to be themselves, he asserts his own style.

            “The Planet of S” stands out among these paintings and seems analogous to the metaphysical interiors by Giorgio de Chirico, who utilized geometric forms with surrealistic intent.  And Science Candy includes some memorable surrealistic work.  In “The Magician”, Donn Kidd presents a human-like figure being sawed through its abdomen by a disembodied hand.  The figure, lying in a cloud of acidic yellow, is rigid, perhaps hypnotized.  Its arms are folded, its slightly oversized feet point upward, and its eyes are draped in a heavy black cloth.  Beneath the figure, spelled upside down and backwards, in agitated half-blocks, is the word “assumption”.  Here, it seems Kidd has embraced elements of op-art, because it isn’t difficult to imagine these letters flashing sequentially like those on a marquee.

                        “The Queen of Forks” is a rosy, buxom figure emerging from a cloud that also serves as a cartoonish ermine collar.  With a sense of tradition, nobility, and pride that matches her expression, she wears a large three-tined Neptunian fork as an earring.  A crown bejeweled with incongruous objects – cherries, marbles, olives – rests on her full head of yellow-orange hair.  Beneath her bust is a banner scripted with the phrase, “She was spoon-fed her flavorite lies.”

            We may sense a link between this painting and “F is for Flatware”, a beguiling piece with numerous components to attract our attention.  First, there are the letters F, L, and T molded together into a key shaped figure.  The F stands out in a small, bright circle of pumpkin orange, which is reflected in a bisected circle of the same size and color in an opposing corner.  Standing between these asymmetrical points is a mysterious, truncated, cone-shaped figure with a bold selection of colors and amusing details: a pink fishtail, a blue udder, a partially peeled magenta label.  The vertical rectangular blue background is framed in pink, yellow, and a fence of gray.  The imagery is like the playful surrealism of Joan Miró or Philip Guston.  The vivid, off-beat colors may remind us of those selected by the artists in the Blue Rider movement, especially August Macke.  The portrait shape of “F is for Flatware” is like a card, perhaps a tarot card.  This feature circles us back to the other two surrealistic paintings, because the tarot deck includes a card called “The Magician” as well as court cards, which include queens.

            The last two paintings in the exhibit, “Walkie Talkie #1” and “Walkie Talkie #2”, comprise a series of photo transferred images of the same toy soldier, from different angles, set against a background of royal blue.  The soldier is standing and crouching toward a phone receiver held to his ear, as if this posture will increase the volume of the device or perhaps block out the cacophony of gunfire.  Beneath these hieroglyphic-suggested images, on each painting, is a horizontal black band with two words of a message strung without spaces in bright, cursive lettering.  The phrases seem fragmented or nonsensical, perhaps the result of the soldiers playing the telephone game.  There is a humorous undercurrent in these paintings, but we also notice their iconic World War I doughboy helmets.  Because they are the last two paintings, sequentially, in the exhibition, they may portend a sense of urgency.  To expand on this observation, we may return to our starting point: “Close your eyes.” Those acquainted with the work of Laurie Anderson will recall how that directive leads into the closing passage of her poem / song “Walk the Dog”.  The final line of that bizarre piece is the abrupt, desperate cry: “Now open them!”

            As it happens, Kidd’s newest work leans toward more trenchant themes.  In a recent conversation with the artist, he contrasted the mood in Science Candy with his newest work, “I stopped painting from 1994 until 2009.  The reasons were complex, and I’m still trying to untangle them.  The work I was making then used a pallet I internalized from my childhood growing up on military bases; the colors were muted and drab.”  When he began painting again, he decided to explore color.  The results are the paintings in Science Candy.  “My initial goal was to attempt to make bright colors and a flat presentation to communicate authenticity.  The paintings, so to speak, spun off of that central axis.”  Having completed this exploration, he is now attempting to unpack work from the early nineties.  “In particular, I did these little drawings with quotes or sayings on them.  Those drawings had an edge to them that I can appreciate these days.  I’m using that aggressive energy as the spark.”

            Viewers who saw the pieces in Science Candy, during its exhibition in Madison, saw work that is cheering, complex, and interactive.  Like confections, these paintings evoke delight, and once ingested, they compel the viewer to associate their content with the viewer’s own subjective experiences and symbols.  Donn Kidd is an artist who communicates a realized, unique vision and invites dialogue.  His paintings stay with us like the reverse images we notice after closing our eyes on a bright sunlit beach or a field of snow.  All pieces in the exhibition are viewable on the artist’s web ( ) and ten of them may be seen on the past exhibitions web page for The Bubbler at Madison Public Library, a hub that connects artists to the community ( ).

Thomas Goodwyn is a freelance writer from Madison, Wisconsin.  He is a member of and participant at the Arts + Literature Lab in Madison, and his poetry and short fiction have appeared in the James White Review.