16 March 2012

Glen Kessler

Glen Kessler's new series of paintings "Command-Shift-3," on view at the Yellow Barn Studio and Gallery March 24-25, 2012, takes a close look at technology and how it shapes the way we see, look and feel.
(This interview has been edited from its original version.)

1. How would you characterize your work from 2005 - 2010?

I graduated with my MFA from The New York Academy of Art in 2005.  The curriculum at 'The Academy' was rigorous, both technically and conceptually.  For my thesis, I conceived of a painting that explored a surprising interaction I had with my wife (then girlfriend).  We were watching a news report on the Iraq War.  Later, we discussed it only to find that we had completely different takes on it.  I knew that it was our opposing political views that caused the schism and was intrigued by how much personal biases and preconceived expectations can shape our understanding of facts.  Being a painter, I found a visual equivalent of this distortion: 

Conceptually speaking, I took a topic like politics, beauty, oddity, combat and mined art history for an image that represented that topic.  I replaced the head of the lead figure in the found image with that of an analagous contemporary figure. I distorted the hybrid image through anamorphic distortion, which distorts an image from all possible perspectives other than one specific oblique angle.  Finally, I rendered the painting in a style that combined old world painting (glazing) and modern painting (thick impastos).  The resulting image was rife with dichotomies for the viewer to explore.  See the images here: http://www.glenkessler.com/Site/2005-2010.html.

2. You are showing recent works (completed in the past year) on March 24-25 at the Yellow Barn Art Gallery in Glen Echo, MD. Does this work represent a shift from your previous paintings or is there also a continuity that it encapsulates?

My newest body of work, 'COMMAND-SHIFT-3,' completed from 2011-2012, represents a shift from the previous series because I am concerned with different issues today than I was from 2005-2010. 

These new paintings focus on the unflinching march of technology into our daily lives.  I marvel at how quickly things are changing, as the internet, GPS, and miniaturization allows computers to creep in.  I use a lot of technology in my personal life and career.  As a painter, I try to maximize the potential of technology to make my work more effective.

Also, as a teacher, I interact with hundreds of people each week. Today’s high school students do not know a world without e-mail, phones with cameras and the immediacy of social media and information at their fingertips. Their world is a one of answers, information, accessibility, ease. 

As a culture we can ask how we, our children, and our children's children will be hardwired as a result of this new way of interacting? Are we aware yet of how this new technology-driven paradigm will continue to shape our minds, our beliefs, our philosophies and psychologies?  This is what my recent work explores. 

Observing how different generations perceive technology, I feel a bit like a cultural anthropologist.  If I were a writer or a researcher, I might publish my findings in words, but as a painter I convey my observations through paint. 

I believe these new paintings have much to offer the patient viewer.  They are layered, offering a depth of meaning. 

I operate with intellectual certainty, but also with a healthy dose of instinct. Both are essential for art-making.  If the work becomes too cerebral, all the mystery and all the empathy is lost.  If it gets too instinctive, the artist loses his way.

Overall, my work remains very personal to me and focuses on my observations of the world around me.  When I began painting in the mid- 90's, I was trained as a perceptual painter.  Initially, that meant painting literally what I saw in front of me, but as time went on, I became bored with the lack of conceptual depth in that mode of working.  Philip Guston captures my thoughts when talking about his studio practice in the face of world events:

"What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything - and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue." 

I sought to use my skills as a painter to convey a world beyond just the visual.  I wanted to give tangible form to my inner thoughts, with all the richness and depth of which painting is capable. 

I see my transition as a very logical progression. It would be odd to make the same work year after year as the world around me changes, and I change as a result. 

See my recent work here: http://www.glenkessler.com/Site/Recent_Work.html.

3. How does technology inform your paintings?

Technology is the backbone of the concepts in my paintings but also plays a major role in the making of the work.  A few years ago, I transitioned from printed photographs as my primary source to the computer screen.  I love the way the glowing pixels capture a luminosity closer to real life than the ink printed on paper.  I can also zoom in effortlessly and even use programs to tinker with the image in a seamless process of 'sketching.'  In my studio, I have a large monitor that I sync up to my smaller laptop screen.  This allows me to really observe details.  It is a great setup that I am sure more and more artists will employ.

Lately, I have been exploring how technology can improve my studio practice.  I 'sketch' and take notes on my laptop and iPhone.  I have not had a paper sketchbook in years. Utilizing all the tools at our disposal is where art is headed.

You might look at my work and say I am a traditional painter, but I love the way modern technology can assist in the artistic process. I am certain that if Velazquez or Picasso were alive today they would use the computer, smartphone and internet in their work.

4. What view of technology do your paintings express?

 When people hear about my work, they might assume I am cynical of the changes technology is ushering in. Not true.  However, I am also not simply advocating for those changes either. 

I have always thought of the artist as an eye - like Philip Guston's great cycloptic figure, a massive eye on an otherwise featureless head.

The eye's job is to observe the world around it and offer intelligent, well-crafted visual essays on what it finds.  I do not like art that hits you over the head with the artist's opinions.  It is small, and a waste of the great gifts of the history of painting. 

I am old enough to remember a time before cell phones, the Internet, VCRs, even remote controls.  I grew up as these technologies came into common use. I am also young enough to make use of them with facility and joy.  However, the incredible speed at which they make their way into every facet of our lives, makes me wonder how people adapt to think, act and believe in new ways. 

Today's high school students accept that information should be immediately accessible, that friends are always within reach, that one should never get lost and that every minute is an opportunity to accomplish some task.  I teach a lot of high school students at The Yellow Barn Studio and Gallery, and I can tell you that they have different expectations now than they did even just five years ago. 

An astonishing number show traits of ADHD. Is this biological, or are we hardwiring children to jump from task to task like apps on a phone?  Many students excel in technical exercises but have difficulty exploring concepts in greater depth.  Is this just youth, or are they being trained to expect answers quickly, without deeper investigation? These fascinating changes appear to be the initial indications of a societal shift.  The past generation tends to observe differences, even to label and treat those differences.  Ultimately, the next generation will shape our culture in its image. 

My work takes note of these seeds of change and communicates them through a beautiful and layered visual language.  I leave it to the viewer to evaluate the impact of these changes. 

My book, "COMMAND-SHIFT-3, New Paintings by Glen Kessler," which includes personal essays on art and technology, will be available for sale at my show on March 24-25.

For more information visit www.GlenKessler.com.

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