During the twentieth century, someone was always looking around and calling what he saw “the death of art.” Yet those years saw the creation of more original and innovative ways of art-making than in any other comparable era. Following the lead of painting, most of those newer approaches (collage, assemblage, serigraphy, installation, performance, video, encaustic, etc.) were viewed by their creators as more that just superficial novelties: the abstract expressionists saw their technical breakthroughs as formal replacements for traditional content (theme, subject matter, point of view). Even those artists who continued to draw and paint from life generally recognized that the style of presentation had become more important than the choice of what to present. For a pop artist, a ketchup bottle and a movie star were equal subjects, provided they were presented in a manner that looked appropriate to the time and place of their representation.
So painting entered the twenty-first century offering an unprecedented range of material choices. Such variety, however, does not equal complete freedom; after all, if the look of the work contributes materially to its content—indeed may BE its content—then that look has to be appropriate to the work’s purpose. Every art student learns to capture the superficial style of cubism—never mind that her work may not share the reasons why cubist art looked the way it did. Works making arbitrary approaches may have decorative virtue, but they clearly would not contribute anything original and legitimate to art. They would not, to use a phrase popularized by the contemporary art movement, “be part of the discourse.”
This history is necessary prelude to an experience that has become common in the gallery. On scanning a room full of art, it’s often the case that new works recall otherwise unconnected ones. Not that they are copies, or even influenced by the earlier work, but it seems as though a look from another time and place has percolated into them, creating a kind of hybrid. The result can be very exciting, as was the case last week, when I came across the paintings of Michael Kessler at MAR Gallery in Park City. Kessler was born in Pennsylvania in 1954, but has lived and worked in New Mexico for some time, so he may be thought a local artist. And although his work initially appears absolutely abstract, closer study reveals it to be rooted in nature —specifically in the emergence from plant architecture of its characteristic surface textures and forms. Finding an image that delivers such a powerful, purely aesthetic rush—the pleasure of rich color and strong line, working together to create a complex-but-unified experience within the frame—and discovering on further examination that it evokes and imports inferences about the world into which it emerges, is the kind of discovery one expects to make in the museum, among the old masters, not something today’s art often delivers.
A few further observations are worth making. As is generally true since the departure of the abstract expressionist “giants,” Kessler’s works run from small to middle size. Their surfaces are hard and glass-like, qualities that go well with their frequent suggestion of stained glass windows. They call to mind European post-WW2 stained glass, with its strong graphic quality: lead lines used to draw freely over an expansive background of colored geometry that is characterized by hand-made textures. In addition to printmaking, the glassy surface encourages a feeling of peering into a shallow space full of scratched, raked, or sprinkled patterns. Lines, varying in weight but usually accompanied by shadows or auras (as if backlit) wind and weave before these grounds, sometimes freely and at other times seeming to be contained in tubes or passageways that crisscross the panel. In addition to botanical details, topological impressions often suggest charts and maps.
It would be sufficient for many in the audience that these are beautiful, captivating, and hypnotic paintings that the eye will never exhaust. They will continue to reward careful and even casual study for as long as they are seen. But for those who want to find another truth—one that can be translated into words—there are metaphors to be found in their resemblance to so many natural events. Whether it’s the starry sky, or bubbles rising in a clear vessel, or the overlap of a texture and a line producing a recognizable object like a leaf or branch, a visual argument is being made in these images. The miracle of the language you are reading is that from a large-but-finite number of words and the rules for combining them, infinite variation is possible, and anything can be said. Michael Kessler demonstrates that from a similarly large-but-limited number of colors and two-dimensional shapes, a three-dimensional world of infinite possibility arises.
Sometimes I think I’m getting tired of art, but I could watch this happen all day, and for the rest of my life.
Michael Kessler’s exhibit of new works, Unbroken Equivalents, opens at Park City’s Gallery MAR March 15 with a reception at 6pm and the show continues through March 31. Gallery MAR is located at 436 Main Street and they are open daily from 10am to 9pm.