Michael Kessler

Barbara Krakow Gallery

Despite refined paint handling and sophisticated technique, Michael Kessler’s paintings speak of innocence—albeit indirectly. Emerging from the 19th-century American landscape tradition, they suggest that nature may still act as the repository of the Divine. Kessler, 33 years old and urban educated, lives on a farm in the rural Pennsylvania of his birth. An isolated lifestyle has, perhaps, enabled him to bypass the apocalyptic cynicism and despair of so many of his contemporaries; however, his aspiration to a purer sensibility does not translate as naïveté. In an era when popular culture has all but replaced the wilderness as esthetic source material, these paintings affirm the artist’s ability to commune profoundly with the natural world.

On-site impressions of nature are filtered through Kessler’s imaginative screen as fantastical landscape or allusory abstraction. Amoebalike shapes jostle abstract images of leaves, branches, bones, etc., conveying a sense of earth, air, water, vegetation, and organisms churning to dynamic internal rhythms. Although most of Kessler’s paintings are not explicitly figurative, the viewer identifies viscerally with their imagery of primordial matter.

Following in the line of Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, Kessler mines the depths and radiance of the unconscious, with formal allusions to biomorphism (Paul Klee, André Masson, Arshile Gorky) and Jackson Pollock’s overallness. Many of the smaller works painted on board incorporate a wide frame as an integral element of the painted composition, implying that the organic/irrational world may be alluded to but not contained.

The most striking work in this show was the hallucinatory landscape Lake II, 1986, executed in Kessler’s most recent, larger (65-by-50-inch), unframed format. A traditional vista, complete with receding stream, dark riverbanks, and a luminous triangle of white sky echoed in the pyramid of water, is fronted by reedy tree trunks and suspended coiled branches. The moment is electrified, made sublime, by a horizontal golden band outlined in crimson, which whips around from the horizon to encircle the foreground trees. The alchemic force of the imagination transmutes nature, which is itself wondrous, into something dazzling, something that is also made; in other words, here is a reason to paint.

Kessler mixes wax into oil pigment, which he applies with a palette knife. Multiple layers are revealed through scraping, scratching, and sanding. Jewellike colors and incandescent surfaces form analogies to such phenomena as geological strata blossoming into lush flora, or the pearl imperceptibly maturing in the oyster.

One caveat: we’ve all seen too many abstruse macrocosms of the microscopic—squiggly Rorschach-test organisms teeming in drops of pond water. In several works (Splitter, 1985; #2, 1986) Kessler veers dangerously close to such slippery kitsch, evoking unfortunate memories of ’60s psychedelic album covers. More often, though, Kessler’s integration of organicism, fantasy, and sheer physical beauty produces paintings capable of implying that the seemingly anachronistic is in fact vital. Paradise may not be completely lost; imbued with the poignancy and erudition of the artist’s vision, the natural world displays an indomitable spirit.

Nancy Stapen