There are those who believe that Brian Kershisnik never changes: that from year to year he paints the same subjects in the same way. While they may be right about some of the details — the dogs, birds, fruit, the flames, the haloes, and the palm-sized bicycles — a visit to David Ericson’s sunlight-filled new gallery in the Avenues will soon convince all but the most hasty viewers that a year and a half of pandemic isolation has coincided with a sea-change in one of Utah’s most dependable Mormon visionaries. And it’s not just that the continuing journey within himself has brought forth new finds — that his “search for something” he can neither identify nor define has led to new dimensions in relationships and solitary ways of being; rather, the person who applied the paint in such thick layers and expressive strokes seems to have escaped the mastery of his thin-and-smooth former self, the better to sing with Walt Whitman:
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
Consider “I Remember This Song,” in which a figure of a woman in profile sings, a familiar concept as I name its parts, which would include a featured, fetching youth supported by a rudimentary background, perhaps an architectural interior or a modest landscape. Here the remains of what began as a mottled ground are visible along the right side of the panel and somewhat more obscurely elsewhere. What’s different is that the artist has chosen to fill the implied space with something — with air currents, her breath, or it seems most likely, the sound of her musical voice, captured in an active, energetic cloud of swirling, gestural brush strokes. Here, as in various other new panels, an uncharacteristic impasto results. Compare this to the nearby “Le Secret,” one of several paintings here on the theme of secrecy, where the nearly embracing couple (dancing? passing like ships in the night?) are surrounded and captured, bound together by what must be the secret made visible, which swirls — again, the thick paint and strong brush strokes — tightly around them and even partly covers their hair. Other figures have loosely, even ambiguously drawn legs, suggesting that the new depth of paint application may be an outgrowth of Kershisnik’s increasing choice to leave his second thoughts, his pentimenti, unresolved.
Like the fox, the art critic knows many things: technical things; art-historical and biographical things. Like the hedgehog, the artist (Brian Kershisnik here, so “he”) knows one big thing. He knows that art doesn’t come from what he understands. It comes from a place of spontaneity that he cultivates with countless hours of practice, until his mind becomes numb and ceases to hold him back, and his unconscious instinct to produce his particular art is liberated from his control.
I once travelled with Brian to his studio in Kanosh. Our plan was for me to watch him paint and, while he painted, for him to explain what he was doing. Yes, he assembled panels, mixed and applied paint, but the result was backgrounds: solid colors that would support the figures and actions that reveal his inner world. Finally, I took leave of the studio and walked for six or seven miles around that semi-ghost town. On my return, I saw he had swiftly painted any number of figures, some groups playing music and others in conversation. Then as I watched, the painter, working without sketches or research materials or a drawing, painted a flawless violin into the hands of one of his musicians, correct not only in form but perspective as well. Then I knew what he was going to tell me: that so long as I held him in the world of words and ideas, he could never really paint. Only when he was liberated to work in solitude, not only from any witness but from his own inner censor, could his brush sing its song.
There are trick ponies who can do what Brian could not, or at least they deceptively appear to do so. Someone like Vik Muniz, introduced in these pages recently, whose well-practiced stunts impress the naive by giving them something that looks like art they can explain to themselves and others, even though it isn’t art at all. Muniz never discloses an original vision, but if you give him some well-known image and a quantity of materials — macaroni, the favorite medium of children, say, or any large quantity of small parts — he can arrange the latter to resemble the former. Of course you never see the actual peanut butter and jelly Mona Lisa; what you see is a photograph of it, which unlike the child’s macaroni-glued-to-construction-paper refrigerator masterpiece will forever by fixed in time at its perfectly fresh moment. (Imagine traveling to Paris and being shown a photo of the original.) What emerges from Muniz’ transformational copying machine exploits a human power well understood by psychologists and once explained brilliantly by Buckminster Fuller: a power to transfer form or content from one medium to another. But it is not an independent world like the one Brian Kershisnik and any number of his fellow Utah artists have forged over decades, in which they can demonstrate real human emotions and experiences that once seen are immediately recognized, not as pages from books, but from our own lives. Muniz can give us spilled soup that bears an uncanny, because deliberate, resemblance to our sainted mother’s anxious expression, but it cannot give us the “Good Broth” that wreaths Brian Kershisnik’s figure, who stands in for us, in a tower of scented vapor.
Brian Kershisnik: Holy Conversation, David Ericson Fine Art, Salt Lake City, through Oct. 13.