New York

Michael Kessler

Jack Tilton Gallery

Michael Kessler’s first solo exhibition in New York was an auspicious debut. One quibbles with certain aspects of his paintings, but his overall level of seriousness, accomplishment, and belief in the continuing possibilities of abstraction set him apart from most artists of his generation (he recently turned 30). The artist has spent much of his life in relative isolation in rural Pennsylvania, and his highly evocative abstractions evolve from his constant contact with nature.

Kessler works in oil on modest-sized pieces of Masonite. All the paintings here also incorporate a heavily worked wood frame as an integral part of the composition; sometimes the device succeeds wonderfully, as when snakelike forms seem to leap from the painting onto the frame, but elsewhere it seems like an unnecessary mannerism. Kessler’s paintings can be divided into two groups: in one, telluric images and motifs simultaneously resemble the disclosures of a laboratory slide and those of a telescope; in the other, one has the feeling one is experiencing nature—a swamp’s dense vegetation and patterning of light and shadow—rather than just viewing it. This feeling is reinforced by the sensual surfaces of the works. The veining of leaves, the way light penetrates a forest, rivulets of mud and lava, a branch’s gnarled surface, and endless decay and growth are some of the sources of both groups.

The colors are like dawn; they are luminous to the point of being pleasantly excruciating. At the same time, it is not unusual to find a painting with a surface ranging from the impastoed to the scarred, scratched, burnished, or stained. Here, then, is a young artist with a metaphysical vision evolving out of Heraclitus; both see the world as a continuum undergoing relentless metamorphosis. Kessler expresses his inward vision by tapping into the metaphorical possibilities inherent in paint’s materiality.

In the smaller, squarer paintings the images tend to be emblematic. I was reminded of the shape of leaves, the chambers of the heart, and cellular structure; a metaphoric current connects all three. The larger, more recent paintings are both less emblematic and symmetrical in composition, which suggests that Kessler is moving on, trying to enlarge his approach. What comes next promises to be even more powerful than these already strong paintings.

John Yau