Dena Kahan’s work is a meditation on desire and the gap that exists between fantasy and reality, imagination and execution. She is fascinated by the idea of perfection – the elusive and impossible – be it in the man made or the natural world.
With a professional background in art history and art conservation, her art practice is informed by an awareness of European pictorial and technical traditions. However, in her work classical qualities of balance and perspective are gently subverted. She plays with ambiguities of scale and distance. Small objects may dwarf a panoramic landscape. Balls of string may loom large, unravelling weightlessly or gathering solidity. Transparent floating spheres may be great or small, lenses or soap bubbles, with no horizon line to anchor them or to act as a point of reference. These subversions may be humorous, contemplative, lyrical, unsettling.
In the installation of her exhibitions, the paintings often work both as individual pieces and also as part of a larger, more speculative whole. In this context spatial relationships between the works indicate a continuity and movement through space. Abstract qualities inherent in the compositions become more apparent and patterns are created. The work may read as a kind of jigsaw puzzle whose pieces do not fit together. The desire of the viewer to find coherence and order is never quite fulfilled.
For several years Dena’s work has used the glass case of the museum to explore the desire for order and perfection, and its impossibility. In these paintings single objects multiplied and distorted by reflection, threaten to dissolve into abstraction. Catalogue numbers float uncertainly; glass shelves, tilted away from the horizontal, appear unstable and precarious. A strong internal tension is created, lurking beneath the luscious colour and smooth, seductive surfaces. Perfection, as always, proves elusive.
More recent work explores the relationship between art and science. In the 19th century natural scientists wanted to meticulously record and classify marine animals. Bohemian glassmakers Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka satisfied this desire by re-creating them in glass. These exquisite models were a way of keeping the colour and delicacy of these ephemeral creatures as close to a real and eternal life as possible.
As a painter, her interest was caught by the strangeness of their forms and their seductive colour. In this series of paintings the scientific accuracy of the original models has been lost, along with all their classifications and identifications. Scale shifts. Sometimes even the original forms that were once made ‘solid’ in glass to fix them permanently have shed their clear outlines and begun to flow into each other.
She then completed a body of work on the famous Glass Flowers made by the Blaschkas for the Harvard Museum of Natural History. In these paintings, once again, the changes in scale and the more abstract reflections in the museum case create a poetic, disorienting and sometimes sinister world.
Her current work stays in the realm of botany and natural history, taking as its subject 19th century paper mache models from the Herbarium collection at the University of Melbourne. These works refer more overtly to the tradition of still life, the surreal beauty of the models taking centre stage. Tightly arranged within narrow spaces like personages in a strange drama, these objects convey a theatricality which overwhelms their role as objects of scientific certainty.
Dena lives and works in Melbourne. She is represented by Gallerysmith, Melbourne.