Jeffrey Kessel

Jeffrey Kessel Interview - By Steven Cox

HUNTED PROJECTS presents the work of New York based painter Jeffrey Kessel.

Jeffrey Kessel's large painterly works explore destruction as a process, using physical manoeuvres such as crumpling, scraping and wiping to produce surfaces that are representative of a physical materiality.  Owing no preconceived direction, Kessel's paintings never begin with preparatory sketches, though evolve naturally by means of experimenting and investigating the materialistic qualities of paint and its never ending range of application techniques.  

Can you tell HUNTED PROJECTS a little about yourself and creative background?

JK: I went to art school in Baltimore in the late 90s, The Maryland Institute College of Art.  At the time Baltimore seemed very exotic. Funny to think that now. Actually the city still seems pretty exotic just in a different way than I’d imagined then. I live in Brooklyn now but grew up in Onalaska, WI- a small relatively insular old logging town on the Black River in the Western edge of the state, a few miles from the Mississippi.  The land there is striking, dramatic yet subdued, maybe a little morose; open, rolling, and completely surrounded by rocky bluffs.  As a family we didn't get out much. Geographically that is, we stayed pretty local. I'd never seen the ocean before my 20's.

Literally though we spent lot of time outdoors. I have great memories of summers in Northern Minnesota, Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters. It's a very remote area, incredibly beautiful and magical.

In 2004 I started my Graduate work at Cranbrook just outside Detroit, a place I had no illusions about from the get go.

When did your interest within the arts begin?

JK: I have one brother just slightly older. He is the left side of the brain, very intelligent and technical minded. A whiz with electronics and all things mechanical.

Being the non-competitive type I took refuge where I excelled, I had more of a visual intelligence. This dynamic was established pretty early on. Throughout childhood I was obsessive about drawing, painting too, but especially drawing. I got a lot of support from my parents who themselves weren't particularly versed in the arts. They took me to museums often, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis was the closest at 3 hours away, and we spent a lot of time there. Also the Art Institute of Chicago and on rare occasions the Des Moines Art Center- an amazing place. I saw Richter for the first time there, a monumental painting from the early 80's (I think); it was incredible and left a big impression on me. Also there was a nice painting of pyramids by Lichtenstein. It’s a really great museum not many people seem to know about it because it's in Iowa.

Throughout high school I was pretty much into abstract painting. I blame the Richter. At least in part anyway, I've been plagued by him ever since. He gets brought up from time to time in reference to my work, personally I don't see it, but it’s hard to get out from under his thumb. He's a great painter but not someone I look at or think about much anymore.

After that, one thing led to another and with the support of two important teachers I found myself for better or worse in the ‘arm pit of the Chesapeake bay’, as they say. I often wonder now if maybe that wasn't a mistake. Art school is too expensive. But probably it's best not to go down that rabbit hole.

The painting processes you utilize showcase many of the painterly traits of an expressionist painter, for your painterly vocabulary includes dripping, pouring, scraping, splattering, wiping, etc.  Would you consider your own works as being expressionistic for your paintings do appear to be the personal battling and destruction of popular traits associated with current abstract painting?

JK: No. But, these are paintings in the truest sense; painting, the act of making a painting is the core of the work. The word expression though has little meaning left in it for me. Frankly I don't believe it possible to make a truly expressionistic painting today, but in any case that's not what I'm trying to do here, not in any meaningful way.  Some of the work may appear as near to that as one could get, but I don't want to dwell on or overemphasize that point, they come from a different place.

Despite the unrestrained spontaneity of my studio practice, the paintings can often be fairly tight and structured. It's true; I work intuitively and never plan paintings out in advance. I also work fast, its very physical. I'll wipe out or cover up a painting on a whim. I don't like to tinker. They stay fresh this way, it keeps them from closing in and they have energy because of it. But I wouldn't describe it as expression. Somehow they’re more pointed than that, representative of labor and physical materiality. Utilitarian in a way. These are striped down matter-of-fact paintings that lay themselves bare; they're not gratuitous in any way. What you see is what you get. Not grandiose or pretentious in the way I sometimes think of expressive painting. Nor about gesture in any profound way, at least that's the way I see them.

Could you discuss your views on the importance of one developing a painterly vocabulary?

JK: Having a unique specific vision and particular way communicating is key; Raymond Carver said something similar referring to writing short stories. I’m not sure a broad painterly vocabulary is necessarily important in itself. Within a body of work or a single painting the language need not be varied or complex, as long as it’s explicit. As a side note I'd add that there are a lot of really good painters who more or less make the same painting for years and yet somehow manage to keep the work from getting stale. That's a hard thing to do. In my case It's the nature of the way I work that accounts for much of the 'painterly vocabulary'.  Also I'm impatient, which doesn’t allow much room to make say 10 of the same painting, (although it probably wouldn't be a bad idea). One painting leads to the next, new concerns arise that beg new solutions and so on and so forth. The work shifts around a bit and the paintings can really vary from one to the next, it keeps the work exciting for me.

Unpredictability, improvisational and reactionary are terms that come to mind that relate to your process of destructive painting.  What is it about this process that appeals to you and how do you recognize that a work of your own is concluded?

JK: I'd say that's a fairly accurate description of the process. All of these things imply a sense of risk, certainly that's one thing, though maybe not as important as the freedom that goes along with it which keeps me from getting too weighed down by anything. Working in this 'all or nothing' way you really can't go back and adjust just part of the painting, the end result being more of an indivisible whole. Singular. That is, opposed to a part-by-part relation.  There’s integrity in this manner of working that I think is essential. 

However, to discus the work solely in these terms would be a misrepresentation. It misses the bigger picture. Although true to the process, taken alone these things could imply a lack of clarity, a kind of loosey-gooesy free for all where anything goes and the work becomes mainly about its own making. That’s just part of it. These aren't loose paintings, they are more succinct.

Which brings up the second part of your question, when is a painting complete. That’s tricky; I never want absolute closure with any painting. It’s important that the work remains open but just on the edge of a resolution. I typically respond to that question with an idea I've taken again from Carver, which essentially is when the work can say the most while using the least. There is a bit of austere theatricality to a lot of my work.  

Also, though it's not so thought out as this in the making, or nearly as contrived, there is a dynamic in the work that exists as a result of balancing the real material surface and the more spatial underlying structure. The spatial part, which is harder to define, conflicts with the paintings materiality and creates a certain degree of dissonance.  This is important. Finishing a painting is a matter of finding the right pitch, sometimes it’s clear right away, sometimes it takes months to realize.

Though this is all sounding a bit too prescriptive, I find that paintings are always better seen than described.

What would you recognize as an ideal starting point for an artwork?

JK: An ideal starting point for a single work would be four large blank canvasses.

Can you discuss some of your influences and inspirations behind your work?

JK: In terms of artists, De Kooning and Rothko were really important to me early on. Also, Richter who I've already mentioned.  Kandinsky was maybe my first significant influence. In the last ten years- Christopher Wool, Steven Parrino, Fred Sandback, Peter Doig, among many others. Music too, early Low was at one time a big influence, not so much anymore, I was making different paintings then. Also Spiritualized, definitely a big influence. Then there is physical space - vastness, which has always been important, but maybe I don't need to list that one, I have a bit of romantic bend when it comes to space and land.

Thomas Wolfe and Raymond carver. Bach and Charles Mingus. I could go on, lots of things, not always specific. My wife is a huge and constant influence and inspiration. She helps me through everything.

Are there any particular artist’s artworks that particularly inspire you?

JK: In 2006, Chris Vessel showed a handful of dark brooding paintings at the Whitney Biennial. Those were great. I may be misremembering a little but nonetheless they've stuck with me.

What are you currently working towards?

JK: My wife and I had twins in the spring. Since then things have gotten harder. But then again they were always difficult.  So, what's next? I don't know. Hopefully a few more paintings...

All images courtesy of Thierry Goldberg Gallery