Brian Kershisnik . . . from page 1
Central to Kershisnik's body of work are images of men and women similar to, but not meant to represent or be confused with, his family and their contemporaries. His images begin with visual scenes that somehow catch his attention, with questions he finds easier to think about visually, and with insights that he calls ‘hunches.’ While the core consists of naturalistic vignettes of family life, he often pursues a question or hunch into places even he finds mysterious: his figures sometimes engage in activities or gestures not immediately self-explanatory, like balancing odd objects or waving their arms about. Variations on "They Are Just Doing This" occur several times among his titles. In the central room of the Springville Museum of Art hangs one of several large paintings on such an odd topic, in which men and women lie on the grass in a park-like area, while one of them floats overhead, as if flying in a dream, tethered by a kind of leash to someone on the ground. He has also painted visions of paradise that look—appropriately enough—like a family reunion: his characteristic young adults standing in a field, bracketed by elders, toddlers, and pet dogs.
A large fraction of Kershisnik’s work takes this domestic form. An additional body of work represents spiritual matters presented in this same everyday mode. Some are scriptural stories, like the miracles of Jesus Christ, while others seek to convey more obviously supernatural events. For these, he’s developed a personal, visual language for depicting angels, making deceased-but-still-present souls visible, and building up hierarchies of otherworldly figures who appear alongside and interact with his terrestrial figures in ways that suggest blessings or other interventions. In one of his most popular compositions, the Nativity that is now in the permanent collection of the BYU Art Museum, these figures emerge as the visual equivalent of a Greek chorus, witnessing and commenting on the drama of the painting through their expressions. This mechanism, popular with viewers and having the potential to revise the entire history of Christian narrative art, may become a staple in his repertoire.
Oceans of ink have been spilt on Brian Kershisnik’s art, but few attempts have been made to explain what makes it so appealing. Much of the answer lies in the contrast between his sophisticated figures and the minimal settings he places them in. On the one hand, his men and women are attractive: youthful, graceful, and fit. They look like people we all admire, even if not that many of them look that good. At the same time, they feel like portraits of specific individuals, not mere types. In other words, we feel they show us ourselves, but in an idealized form, perhaps not unlike Lincoln’s appeal to ‘the better angels of our nature.’ They represent who we would like to become, what we have the potential to be, rather than what we are. On the other hand, the settings and backgrounds he places these figures in, beyond the few sets and props needed for the painting to work, are blank slates on which the viewer can inscribe anything desired. In this way, they are like waking dreams.
All parents should know that part of the challenge of raising children lies in gradually yielding to the child’s growing autonomy. The goal of the job is to become unemployed, and the empty nest is both a reward and a challenge. As their children prepared to leave home, Kershisnik and his wife, who disliked being confused with the women in his paintings, reconsidered the choices they’d made years earlier. Both eventually left Kanosh to pursue separate futures on the populous Wasatch Front, where they continue actively parenting their children through the transition to adult life. Brian kept the studio, a now-isolated haven where he works a week or often more per month, and where he meets with students and fellow artists for bouts of intensive painting.
Those whom circumstances make single in their forties almost universally express dismay at the challenge of finding a new relationship. For Kershisnik, who has written that painting is part of his search for the perfect way to live, there was compensation. Art neither begins nor ends with memoir, but his art inevitably tracked his life. As the challenge of finding a mate gave way to the challenge of living with one, as he settled into family and community life, his work broadened accordingly. Now, he can begin to look back at some of his youthful ideas, such as the role of physical appeal in courtship, marriage, and later life, from the perspective of a more mature man. So it’s interesting to see the work showing this month at the Meyer Gallery, including "La Femme Est Observée," in which a visible force field that emanates from a central figure affects an observer in the corner, and "Want to Kiss," in which a man and woman face each other across the width of a canvas, while a transparent version of the man has crossed the space to embrace the woman.
The difference between such visually encoded, philosophical inquiries—secular parables, so to speak—and his overtly religious images is less significant to Kershisnik than it is to many viewers. After all, he has stated his conviction that one thing every work of art does, regardless the intentions of its maker, is reveal that maker’s religion. As he uses the term, it doesn’t necessarily mean an organized system of belief, but rather a personal ideology. It’s not the ritual or the authoritarian structure we always see in the art; it’s the cosmology, ethics, and sense of personal responsibility. So as interesting as his recent paintings of men and women are, they should not cause his audience to overlook the magnum opus he chose to show in the Utah’s 15 exhibit, held in the Rio Gallery this month. "The Descent From the Cross" represents a breakthrough for Brian Kershisnik on at least two levels, one of which gave him serious second thoughts as he worked on the large canvas. As he explains it, his Church has chosen to focus on the living Christ, on His birth, His re-establishment of His Church, and His appearance in the New World. With no desire to diminish the importance of those events, Kershisnik wanted to add to them the sacrifice by which He atoned for the sins of humanity, by suffering and dying on the cross. The challenge was to depict, instead of the familiar, living Christ, His dead body.
"The Descent From the Cross" asks believers to contemplate the painful implications of their beliefs. Before that, the sophisticated work demanded a formal breakthrough by the painter. He describes his theme in mechanical terms: the followers of Jesus faced with the unfamiliar task of lowering an inert body, yielding to the pull of gravity in a controlled fashion, their task made more difficult by palpable, devastating grief and horror. There are twelve of them, composed in depth, woven around the body in a horizontal S-shape. Kershisnik, given to spacious canvases, had never needed to solve such a complex technical challenge. Arching over this scene, the vault of heaven once again becomes the angelic chorus, three times as numerous as the mortal party, reduced like them to useless improvisation by an incomprehensible event. One detail, seeming trivial at first, grows in the viewer’s mind. Every man and woman who takes part in the descent is unshod, only their bare feet permitted to touch holy ground. This is how the artist finally conveys the full weight of what we witness. Brian Kershisnik has measured the effects of gravity in his life, and is learning to paint them as well.
Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
Exploring the feminine at Art Access
The term “strong women” may conjure images of female news-headliners, those who have risen to the top of their field or achieved fame in a male-dominated arena. You know the ones: the athletes, corporate CEOs, heads of state, or entertainment celebrities. But the Strong Women in the Art Access exhibit (through March 14th), painted by five different artists, are nothing like that. They are all quite ordinary.
According to curator Sheryl Gillilan, this exhibit is bound to start a conversation – in your head, with a friend, or with a complete stranger viewing the exhibit with you. What does it mean to be “strong?” How can someone so naked, so fat, so vulnerable be strong? What makes an ordinary woman, say a math teacher from the 1950s, strong? And, if you see yourself in one of these images, do you call yourself strong?
Jennifer Broschinsky’s women inhabit neat metaphorical worlds where, though they may hide behind masks or business suits, they cannot control the abundance of curly hair that expresses their suppressed emotions.|1| They are strong because they play their roles well; they’ve figured out how to balance their own desires with the “social niceties and cultural expectations,” as Broschinsky says in her artist statement. Painted layer upon layer in acrylics, her women evoke layers of meaning: In “Fugitive”, for example, the woman with the unruly hair holds an empty birdcage as two birds fly around her. Has she set loose her children with the fear that most mothers feel in the letting-go stage of life? Or has she somehow freed her own spirit from the modest yellow costume society expects her to wear? Whatever the story, we (especially women) can identify with the strength it takes to open the door of that cage.
Terrece Beesley’s watercolor paintings depict ordinary women of the 1950s, in small town America, doing ordinary things – snowshoeing, sewing, bowling, or teaching in the home.|2| Her subjects, gleaned from old photos, include her grandmother and friends as well as others from her hometown in Idaho. She notes in her artist statement, “some were widowed at an early age.” Perhaps their strength came from the way they bonded together to rebuild their lives. They smile back at the viewer without self-pity or pretense. Rather, they kick up their heels and dance, or they pause in their quilting, or pause briefly before heading into their next visiting teaching appointment, always with a grin or a steady gaze of confidence. Says Beesley, “I admired them and maybe feared them a little. At the same time I can’t resist taking a gentle jab at them.” And we smile at these retro-strong women.
Azrael Szuchay calls his part of the exhibit, “Strong Women of the Jazz Age.” He enjoys the aesthetic qualities of the 1920s and art deco era, and incorporates the period’s decorative lines and colors in his soulful portraits of women. He notes in his artist statement that the early jazz era helped women of color transcend racial and cultural limitations. No doubt women had to be strong to do it. His portraits depict that strength through bold color and determined line, while also expressing the melancholy and vulnerability of these women.|3|
Carol Berrey’s paintings are mostly large in scale, but they barely contain the “bounteous flesh” of her obese female subjects.|4| So accustomed are we to seeing model-thin, air-bushed women in popular media, that these unapologetically obese figures may seem ugly and shocking. But Berrey’s paintings aim to “reclaim these women and celebrate their inherent strength and beauty” (artist statement). Indeed, the curves and folds of their bodies are beautifully painted with many colors in the flesh tones. And perhaps because most of the paintings are back views, or without heads, or with the face concealed by hair, the viewer is not confronted with a gaze, challenging or vulnerable. There is one exception: in “Four Sisters,” a line-up of seated, nude women face away from the viewer, except for the last in line, who turns her head to look at us with a “I’m just fine, thank you”-kind of smile.
Sasha Gorham’s series of nude women are, in contrast to Berrey’s, angular and raw.|5| This is in part Gorham’s reaction to what she considers “overly perfect images in public media.” She says in her artist statement that it is also an expression of “the anxiety I feel in relation to the world at large.” Her figures are sketchily rendered with charcoal and oil paint. She intends them to feel “unfinished, much like life is unfinished.” Their bodies are distorted and there are no heads or faces to give away more of the emotional content. Rather, the emotion comes through Gorham’s expressive drawing. There is daring in the expression and strength in the daring. This is one strong woman artist.
Whether you are a strong woman or think you know one, your whole concept of that term may expand after viewing this show.