His Own Person, Despite Influences: Jeff Kessel’s abstract paintings
Jeff Kessel at Derek Eller Gallery
July 1 to August 13, 2010
615 West 27th Street, between 11th and 12th avenues
New York City, (212) 206-6411
A small but accomplished show at Derek Eller of abstract, mostly expressionist works by Jeff Kessel included a wonderful untitled painting (all the paintings are untitled and were finished this year) that looks like a cross between (abstract) Gerhard Richter and Willem de Kooning. At 66 by 48 inches, the large canvas is powerfully active with broad scrapings of the brush, which follows its own momentum and lends structure to Kessel’s exuberant handling of color. These curving strokes are particularly dense at the top of the painting but also occur in the middle and lower levels. The palette is light—pink and blue are used, while on the left side of the painting we see small blotches of orange and bright green. Above almost everything are a series of red lines, one of which trails downward to the middle right of the work. Drips are frequent and lyrical. Like the rest of the show, this work is excitingly well done, even if we are a bit bemused by Kessel’s decision to paint in a manner more or less overwhelmed by earlier artists.
The larger question implied by Kessel is whether abstract painting of this sort can hold its own in the present. My feeling is that art is now in a position to support work of many different intentions and expressions, and that paintings like Kessel’s therefore deserve serious attention. This does not shut down the anxiety of influence that attends the work that follows abstract expressionism, which remains the great moment in American modern art. The contemporary artist cannot treat the present as the past; instead, he has to assimilate or internalize the legacy and find new ways of rendering that approach without stealing from it. Kessel has mostly done that. The gallery’s reception area displayed only one work, a wonderfully vibrant and somehow new-seeming piece. Five black stripes, set together and rising at a slight angle from the lower left to the upper right, make a strong statement across the body of the painting. The background is complex: white predominates on the left, while a reddish pink activates the right. Random strokes and drips create a palimpsest in which Kessel reveals his thinking and makes clear the sequence of his painterly decisions. There is an attractive truthfulness about all the work, whose transparent layers reveal ghosts of other layers and document the history of the painting.
Richter is a finicky abstractionist and de Kooining is a superbly messy one; the interesting aspect of Kessel’s art is found in its ability to be precise and atmospheric in the same work of art. Of course, sometimes the artist leans more in one direction than in others. He shows a predilection for control in one beautiful painting that consists of dark, broad brushstrokes creating a triangular center. This is a somber painting, but one of unusual energy. Its effects comprise narrow lines of paint revealing the movement of the brush, with some stripes of lighter colors—green, yellow, red. Here Kessel seems to have found his métier. Abstract painting is being kept alive by artists like him, especially when he finds the groove in his search for a language that is historically new. Another work, dominated by a big “X” on the left, as well as other lines that sweep across the composition vertically and diagonally, nicely reveals the conditions of its making. Yellow and white passages, by turns both linear and organic, overlap the lines just described. Around the edges of the painting we find Kessel’s by-now-familiar broad strokes of paint. While the effects aren’t loaded with pigment, there is a well-balanced abstraction here that gives pleasure to his audience. Kessel, despite the burden of translating a past given to greatness, manages to remain his own person.