Historic Journal

Journal Archives,Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Archives

Michael Kessler: Paintings

September 1, 1990
AUTHOR
Judith Stein

A writer and curator, studied at Barnard College, and has a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Eye of the Sixties, Richard Bellamy and the Transformation of Modern Art, (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016). Her curatorial projects include Red Grooms, A Retrospective, for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and The Figurative Fifties, New York School Figurative Expressionism, co-curated with Paul Schimmel. Her exhibition, I Tell My Heart: The Art of Horace Pippin, traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1995, and earned a best catalogue award from AICA/USA. Her articles, interviews and reviews have appeared in Art in America, Art News, and The New York Times Book Review, as well as on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air and Morning Edition. Among her honors is a Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant; a Pew Fellowship for literary non-fiction; and a Lannan Foundation writing residency in Marfa, Texas.

"They allude to watery domains, developmental transformations and primitive societies. In the artist’s words, “I’m painting the internal dynamics of nature, the energy, and the elements of the soul in the natural world.”

Nina Freudenheim Gallery, Buffalo, NY
September 8 – October 3, 1990
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is. seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; And wears man’s smudge and shares
man’s smell: the soil Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
-Gerard Manley Hopkins, God’s Grandeur
Although Michael Kessler is aware of what the romantic poet Hopkins called “man’s smudge” upon the landscape, the artist prefers to focus his attention downward and inward. For Kessler, process becomes part of his art’s content as he scrapes, burnishes and abrades the surfaces to reveal nature’s “freshness deep down things.”
In the course of the last twenty years Kessler evolved a two-part process for his paintings. He first coats the entire surface with a series of oil paint skins that vary in their “sandability,” as he terms it. This labor intensive method embodies time as he waits for each layer to dry before going on. Periodically smoothed and rubbed, Kessler’s paintings allude to habitual use, suggesting textures worn by attrition. A variety of gestural marks inhabit these nether realms that may or may not be unearthed by the happenstance of the second phase’s stratigraphy.
Ninety-five percent of what we see is the result of a final “wet into wet”‘ session, an intense sprint of creation in which Kessler permits the image to evolve as he uses the palette knife like a spade, delving below what is visible to reveal the artifacts of past intentions.
He enjoys working with wood as a support. Three years ago Kessler’s paintings jumped scale from that of the hand-held plank to the body-sized panel. No longer bounded by his characteristic frames, the new works have rounded corners, as if to reinforce their existence as sculptural objects.
But for all their “thingness,” Kessler’s works align themselves within the sensual tradition of oil painting. He uses the viscous medium to probe the inner life of color, yielding beaming, light-shot passages as-well as moody expanses of hues that evade the act of naming.
In Kessler’s most recent body of work, his imagery is attenuated-shapes may tunnel down from above, or drift up like sea grass. At times patterned filaments with no beginnings nor ends pulse from top to bottom in rhythmic intervals. In other instances, they pool and loop as if suspended in a dense liquid. Like glass-bottomed boats, his images often reveal the gestural record beneath the painting’s surface.
Kessler’s diverse titles reflect his broad interests and current reading. They allude to watery domains, developmental transformations and primitive societies. In the artist’s words, “I’m painting the internal dynamics of nature, the energy, and the elements of the soul in the natural world.”
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