Oil on canvas
25.25 x 32 x 2.5 in. (64.135 x 81.28 x 6.35 cm)
Gift of the Marie Eccles Caine Foundation
By 1947 World War II was well over. Charles Howard and Madge Knight had just left the wartime oasis of San Francisco and returned to London, a bombed-out city beset by impoverishment, strict rationing, and the coldest winter in recorded history. In Howard’s The Visitants their displacement is palpable; this painting is psychologically bleaker and compositionally more complex, less rational, and more anarchic than other works of his from the period.
During the war, Howard had worked in a Bay Area shipyard, where scrap piles had provided him with streamlined forms and accidental twists of metal. He also spent hours studying books on biology. His work began to exhibit a greater sense of both the biological and the metallic, as well as increasing elegance, pristine hard edges, and technical virtuosity. The abstracted shapes tangled in or floating across Howard’s inner landscapes recall warships and bombers, propellers, radio transmitters and receivers.
The signature elements of Howard’s biomorphic surrealism are present in The Visitants: the tripartite composition with its carefully balanced asymmetry; the metallic, bladelike symbol of infinity; the reduced palette of black, gray, and white with a few opaque primaries; and the proscenium of sorts that encloses the dynamic action. Shapes in the foreground inevitably end up in the background, intensifying the sense of movement and the ambiguity of figure and ground.
Most important is the central totemlike axis—here a passionate red embellished with hairlike laments— that seemingly both orchestrates and remains discrete from the other elements, like a point of contact between mind and body. Pockets of deep space open up in the midst of this internal, psychobiological realm, making reference to the metaphysical void. Howard’s work expresses chaos and biological limitation, while hinting at the possibility of a new order of functioning.
Susan M. Anderson
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