Michael Kessler , “Bending the Curve”, Gallery Bienvenu, New Orleans, Aug. 2011
by Miriam Seidel , Corresponding Editor, Art in America
New Mexico, with its clear light and wide-open yet varied desert landscape, has inspired many artists over the past century – including the modernist painters Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley and Arthur Dove – to make work that reconciles its distinctive qualities without creating literal landscapes. Michael Kessler’s nature-based abstraction can be seen as part of this tradition. His virtuosic painting process, with its toweling, drips and squeezes, makes for textures that echo rippling sand and weathered wood, and his gray-whites and tans call up the high desert floor. A painting like Condign can read as a riff on an aerial map, with the grid-like marks suggesting the geometry of plowed fields, while the stained and scruffy brown background abides, beside or underneath the areas of new green.
Yet Kessler’s work continues to flow, and the new paintings in this exhibit demonstrate that his sensibility is not confined to one place. Here, the dark, coiling gestural marks that underlie each painting can be read as meandering rivers, looping and doubling back at times, finding multiple new channels. Like the Mississippi, their relaxed curves belie their prodigious power. Within the exquisite semi-transparent layering that Kessler achieves, these river-marks might be flowing unseen as underground aquifers, then re-emerging, feeding their banks with new color. The muted spring green and deep blue that appear in this work can suggest the fertile land and blue water of the Gulf. These colors, especially in the long horizontal format of the Eudemon series, seem to plunge us inside the water, where the dance of layers might be allowing tendrils of sea-grass to float or fall under the surface.
In the diptych Coryphaeus, the layering of green over the long, meandering mark gives the line a ghostly presence in places. Here, the half-hidden arc, with only its edges fully visible, feels more like a line of energy – what in Chinese landscape would be called a dragon line, tracing unseen forces below the earth. And the blue-white filaments branching and coursing across their cerulean bands in the painting Galvanic feel unmistakably electric. Here Kessler brings us to an understanding of nature as a mysterious force that may be best embodied through abstraction. The fluid, gestural elements may at times feel constrained by the bands of straight lines and solid color that inflect every composition; but that straight-edged counterpoint also creates passages that move rhythmically, in quasi-musical lines that point in their own way to pure energy.
- Miriam Seidel
Corresponding Editor, Art in America