Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Retrospective Reflections

By Charles Kessler

As I wrote in the previous post, I quit painting about eight years ago and was about to throw away all the art I had in storage when I was offered a retrospective. I've been reluctant to write about the work itself because, while it isn't unethical to write about one's own work, there's something about it that makes me uncomfortable. But it's easier to write about it knowing I'm not doing it to advance my career (I quit, remember), and I'm not making any money on the show (100% goes to Art House Productions). Besides, the insights I got from seeing 30 years of my paintings in one space might be of interest.

Some things were a complete revelation, but mostly I was surprised at the extent to which certain themes appear in my work. Here is a representative sampling of the works in my retrospective supplemented with other work that, for various reasons, was not included, and some brief commentary about what I learned.

One thing that should have been obvious but was a revelation to me: my work started out large (the oldest painting in the show is 74 x 160 inches) and generally got smaller and smaller until I was finally making work that was only about 2 or 3 inches. 
Indian Forest Backdrop, 1979-80, acrylic on paper, 74 x 160 inches.
As large as Indian Forest Backdrop is, it was part of an even larger tableau:
Indian Forest Tableau, 1979-80, room size,  22 x 24 feet, Jan Baum Gallery, Los Angeles. I was heavily influenced here by an exhibition I saw of very theatrical Northwest Coast Native American art. 
Below are paintings from 2000-2004 that vary in height. 
From the left: 9 inches, 10 inches and 3 inches high.
Toward the end of this post I discuss the last work I ever made. They're called "Pocket Paintings," and are even smaller, 2 - 3 inches.

My work also became simpler, more elemental and more abstract.
Trainscape, 1988, acrylic on jute, 55 ½ x 36 inches (Photo: Vincent Romaniello). This is one of the first works in which I cut out the shapes and glued them to the surface, butted up to each other like a puzzle. 
From the left: 1992-N, 1992, acrylic on wood, 30 ¾ x 7 inches, 1993-J, 1993, alkyd on linen, 35 x 6 x 3 ½ inches, and 1993-G, alkyd on wood, 36 x 6 x 4 ½ inches.
I always knew I was influenced by two very different artist that I was friends with in Los Angeles, Ron Davis and Charles Garabedian, but I was surprised by how pervasive their influence was. From Davis I derived three-dimensional illusions of geometric objects and a vivid color sensibility. 
1989-C, 1989, acrylic and grit on wood, 7 x 90 inches. Over the years I’ve made quite a few wide skinny paintings like this one. I like that they can be installed in unusual spaces like above doors and windows.
I love rich, bright color, and I'm especially pleased when the colors brighten and enliven each other.

I was influenced by Garabedian's muscular, aggressive drawing, and, even more important for my work, the raw physical way he uses materials.  
Untitled, 1984, acrylic, glitter, grit on bamboo shade, 64 x 48 inches. 
My interest in the physical, tactile qualities of painting has been there from the beginning, and became more and more prominent, even in my abstract works.
Color Slabs, 1980, acrylic on styrofoam, 17 x 30 x 7 inches. Styrofoam is easy to cut and shape, and, best of all, it looks as if the color goes all the way through – as if it's a slab of solid color. 
I knew there was a playful quality to my art, but I didn’t realize that it's in almost everything I did. 
Puzzle Painting, 1990, acrylic and oil pastel on wood, 12 x 12 inches (photo by Stephanie Romano courtesy of JCI). Each puzzle-like piece can be removed and can function as a separate, stand alone painting, like individuals in a not too dysfunctional group. 
I've always been concerned with how art is displayed, but this retrospective made me realized that it has actually been one of the main subjects of my work.
1993-G, alkyd on wood, 36 x 6 x 4 ½ inches. 
About these paintings, Janet Koplos, in Art in America (May, 1994) wrote “Turning commodity art upside down, Charles Kessler presents the individual brushstroke as a displayable and purchasable thing. ... Clearly, for him, paint is an easy sell – a wondrous substance of entrancing surface and glorious hue, no matter where it's found.” 
 1994-L, 1994, acrylic on linen, 38 x 18 inches. 
The thing about abstract painting is it can seem pre-determined, like minimal abstraction, or random and arbitrary, like action painting. In both cases it doesn't seem as if the artist made a decision. (I'm not saying that's in fact the case — it's just experienced as if it were.) I wanted to make work that is experienced as a deliberate act. (I was influenced by Clyfford Still's paintings in that respect.) By cutting out the loosely painted colored configurations and laying them down side by side onto the surface, like a mosaic, as I did in 1994-L (above) and many works like it, I make it apparent that a willful decision was made.

My main conscious concern had been to make paintings that are experienced over time, rather than taken in all at once like the art of the  LA Cool School, or Frank Stella's black paintings. At first I went about it by making paintings that were large, dense, and complicated; later I evolved many simpler and clearer ways to that end.

In the painting reproduced below, 1988-C,  you can only see a little at a time as you scroll down, so it's actually a good way to experience it. 
1988-C, 1988, acrylic on wood, 91 x 7 ½ inches (photo: Vincent Romaniello).
I think of these paintings as abstract narratives — the experience changes as you scan over the different shapes, colors and textures, one image affecting the way another is experienced, like in music, or a Chinese hand scroll.

In a more literal way Open Book, 1998, is experienced over time. 
Open Book, 1998, acrylic on canvas on wood, hardware, 42 x 74 x 29 inches. This is one painting made up of five moving panels.
Another view of Open Book, 1998. Each of the central images on every panel has been cut out and inset into to the background. 
Some work not included in the retrospective:
Two sides of three separate Pocket Paintings, all 2006, acrylic on wood, approximately 1/2 x 2 or 3 inches
(Photos: Jim Geist).
Pocket Paintings, the last work I ever made, encapsulate almost everything I’ve tried to do in my art. They exist in our space – real, not illusionistic, space; they're tactile – you literally touch them; the experience changes over time as you turn them; and they're playful – instead of reading or playing with an iPhone while waiting in a line, or on the subway, you can take one out of your pocket and look at art. They weren't in the retrospective because I only made about 20 of them, and I don't want to part with the ones I have left.

Dancing Wu Li, 1980 (below) is another very large early painting. It was not included in the retrospective because in the early 1990s I gave it to Grace Church, a local church where I curated many art exhibitions. I don't know what ultimately happened to it, but for many years it was prominently exhibited behind the altar.
Dancing Wu Li, 1980-B, acrylic on styrofoam, 88 x 183 x 3 inches.
Embedded Painting, 1995, acrylic on wood, shelf standards, 48 x 96 inches. It's made up of twelve separate paintings that interact with each other. 
Detail: Embedded Painting, 1995. The colored configurations were painted on linen, cut out, and embedded into the slabs of wood.
Embedded Painting was in a Bennington College exhibition that Saul Ostrow organized in 1996, but I never retrieved it after the show.

And there are a few, like the "Pocket Paintings," that for one reason or another I just want to keep:
1990-A, 1990, acrylic on wood, 10 x 15 inches.

Candide, 1988, acrylic on wood, 27 x 11 inches.
1994-K, 1994, acrylic on linen on wood, 12 x 12 inches.


Carl Belz said...

What I especially like about your art is its utterly unpretentious character. It pleads no case to justify its being in the world, it is what it is, it's merely art. Yet it's fully content with the capacity of being itself and with its autonomy, than which there is no experience more central to modern experience. So there you have it, it's nothing and everything rolled into one. It reminds us of what we can be. Bravo!

Charles Kessler said...

WOW! Coming from my mentor and hero, that's really something. Thank you. WOW!

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting dialogue, in someways it mirrors were I am at with my work, currently considering giving it up and organising a funeral pyre with the exception of a couple of 'personal pieces'. Having trained in ceramics my painting often abstract was mainly concerned with the material nature of paint and surface, with a 'what if' intuitive approach, very little preparation, just inspiration and 'happen stance'.
I will reread this blog to digest and consider my painting future, so I thank you for your timely 'intervention' by way of this fortuitous blog, and wish you every success with retrospective, I wish I could see it in person but there is an ocean in the way.
Best regards
Kelvin Harvey

Charles Kessler said...

It's common for artists to want to quit. It's a hard thing to do with your life, and, especially if you're isolated as an artist, it's difficult to continue to make art, even part time. I certainly don't advise destroying your work, at least until you've been away from it for a long time and have found something else to do. And, as I discovered, even then there may be more people who like what you've done than you realize, and you may come to value your work.

BTW, have you thought of returning to ceramics? I've written quit a bit about it lately, and there does seems to be a renewed interest in the medium as an art form -- and there's usually a fellowship among ceramic artists, perhaps because of the need to share facilities.


Federico Correa said...

You do wonderful, exciting and engaging imagery/objects. Congratulations.

Federico Correa

Ken Garber said...

It's wonderful to see so many of your paintings, if only via the internet.

I still remember quite well when you went from being an art historian to becoming a painter...your studios, first in Ocean Park and then in Venice. Your decision to become an artist helped me believe that I could do the same. You have always been so supportive of my work, as well as the work of so many others. I never mentioned this to you before, but to this day, when I'm working on a piece, I often have you in mind, thinking about what you might say about my work. But enough is enough already,...get the hell out of my mind!

The photos of your the work you showed at Jan Baum Gallery brought back vividly how wonderful it was to see them so nicely displayed, and to see how many folks turned out for the opening.

Now onward and upward...get back in the studio! (or not...just enjoy your next 40 years).

Charles Kessler said...

Ken, you've always been a great friend and artist — and writer. Check out his LBAB post: http://leftbankartblog.blogspot.com/2014/05/in-defense-of-ken-prices-cups_25.html. Thank you.

This has all been so heartening — overwhelming.