At the edge of a forest, amid lush foliage punctuated with small blue, yellow, and white flowers, a barefoot woman with red hair lies sleeping on the grass. She wears black leggings and a blue blouse adorned with curlicues, and a planter’s trowel lying nearby identifies her as a “Jardiniere Endormie:” a Sleeping Gardener. Artist Brian Kershisnik doesn’t directly answer questions about his work and has never explained why he occasionally titles a work in French — other than to say it sometimes just feels right — but it makes sense that someone who travels frequently to revisit the great museums of Europe, where his studies include things tourists rarely see, such as Michelangelo’s original cartoons for the Sistine Chapel ceiling, occasionally feels a connection to past artists, or influences that flow directly from teacher to student, over the centuries and down to our day.
“How I coped with the Covid pandemic” might be the theme of more exhibitions during 2023 than any other subject. Not, however, in the art of Brian Kershisnik. Like the music of Mozart, there’s little specific autobiography to be found in the figurative painting and sculpture of this well-known artist. Yet though he has been accurately charged with mining his life to find likenesses of men and women who resemble his Central Utah community, he doesn’t tell their life stories any more than he recounts his own. Rather, in dramatic settings and brief vignettes he seeks answers to questions that arise from his ceaseless contemplation of the human predicament.
To aid that search, in addition to awareness of the universal experiences that come his way, he periodically shifts some emphasis on his personal point of view or the many ways he finds to depict both questions and answers. Sometimes he looks at domestic life, while other years it’s musicians. Just before the pandemic began, he spent a year painting theatrical performers and their audiences: these are things his life as public artist and amateur singer-songwriter have helped prepare him to speak visually about, but just as much provide him with paradigms of a fundamental challenge everyone faces in life, and from both sides, both as performer and audience, whether willing or not.
At this year’s opening at David Ericson Fine Art, one of two public presentations he makes annually, someone long familiar with his work observed that he keeps getting better. This was evident, but hard to pin down. A subject or technique that seems new is likely, on reflection, to have appeared years before. Yet subtle shifts can be identified. For instance, the color palette that served him so well for so long, while it was never truly monochromatic, often employed a few pale, closely related hues that made for a calm, contemplative effect. This year, however, finds him bursting out. While this happens most impressively in “Big Fruit,” it’s also evident in “People Standing in Water” and “Bringing Food,” where the tinted backgrounds of before have intensified to emotional elements in their own right.
One of the things often missing from today’s art is unity, the way a work encapsulates the artist’s thought or world view in a supportive vision. One strength of Kershisnik’s art was that it did this, sympathizing not only with his local references, but their larger contexts. The cool, yet vivid green world of “Jardiniere Endormie” is unlike anything he’s done before, and contrasts with the indefinite interiors and exteriors where so many of his previous works were set, particularly in the details: not only the multitude of small blooms close to the ground, but tall clusters of bright pink Iris and yellow Tulips that balance the sleeper’s head. The focus is still on the figures, but there’s much more going on around them. In “Dog and Human,” there is nothing vague or retiring about either the blue of the sky or the white clouds, which have left behind their role as context and become elements of the story.
Kershisnik’s frequent use of patterns, largely in clothing, dates back to his early days in printmaking, when he began making small stamps that he uses over and over to create a textured design. He still does this, for instance in the background of “Little Victory” and the leaf pattern on the mother’s blouse in “I Can Never Stop Looking For My Children.” The foreground textures, however, have evolved, in time sprouting actual depth. In “Lovers Distracted,” the man’s painted shirt is finely scored to produce a knit-like texture; in “This Garden,” gesso chevrons echo the similarly raised plant stems; a similar technique covers the dress in “Birds and Humans,” while the man’s sweater shows texture and even modeling produced by combing the paint.
Technical advances in paint handling aside, Kershisnik has long flirted with a change of medium — from painter to sculptor. Now there’s been a substantial leap, visible in several examples. At the opening, the clear favorite was “The Sound of Many Books,” a deep relief wherein a woman with her back to us and her head in profile faces, and may be listening to, a background wall of books. For a painter to add a third dimension and a musician to suggest not just reading, but listening to books mark two conceptual doublings. Elsewhere, an excerpt taken from at least one painting of a couple doing gymnastics is called the “Difficult Part,” a comment no doubt on the performative quality in relationships. In “Unfinished Rescue Sculpture,” a woman supports a collapsing man, while “She Sings,” shown in large and small versions, marks a transition between the earlier, smaller works that struggled to become independent of painted originals and these new images, including “Observed” and “Planting Trees,” that, despite their small size, elaborate on rich and complex social interactions.
The spiritual vision that has always marked Brian Kershisnik’s art is still ever present, but dependent less on theology and more reliant on observation and inquiry, which have always been his strengths. In “Dancer and Invisible Gift,” one of several images that exploit a vertical division of the panel, a direct connection is made between the hand gestures that accompany and elucidate speech and the postures that comprise the vocabulary of the body. In such visions he achieves transparency, but because the things he reveals are themselves mysterious, they ask questions they cannot answer directly, except with the evidence of experience and the thinking they inspire.
Brian Kershisnik, David Ericson Fine Art, Salt Lake City, through Oct. 13