Michael Kessler at Butters Gallery


In his latest showing at Butters (Portland, Ore.), Michael Kessler adds a new note to his career-long étude on the opposition of natural forces and man-made structure. Based in Santa Fe, N.M., Kessler, a Prix de Rome recipient, has made a name for himself with his acrylic abstractions on panel, which interpose rectilinear forms with improvisatory gestures spurted across the panel in arcs of paint, varnish and gesso. In his newest works, architectonic infrastructure recedes and the expressionistic daubs and dollops spring forward, larger than in Kessler’s previous work, more spermatozoal in shape, and more proliferative in quantity, dotting the compositions like punctuation marks with minds-and flagella-of their own. Passages in the works such as Quiddity and Asphalia have a burned-in effect, as if strata of vegetal imagery have been revealed by the searing-through of the panels’ outermost layers. Another new development lies in the surfaces themselves, which are not glossy (as they were for years) but instead matte or semi-gloss. “The high-gloss finishes were starting to get trendy,” the artist said at his Butters opening, “so I decided I wanted to distance myself from that.”
Chromatically, too, the painter continues his slow trek across the color wheel. Collectors know him best, perhaps, for his deep, voluptuary reds, often offset by glamorous black. As recently as his 2005 outing at Santa Fe’s NüArt Gallery, he had signaled a turn toward ecru, his work growing more introverted, drier to the eye.

In his Portland outing he explores the relationship between red and green in works such as Damier, Daedal, Kymograph, and Antapex. Happily, this pairing does not register even peripherally as Christmas-like but rather evokes the artist’s New Mexico roots: both ascetic and sensual, astringent and luscious, like a cocktail of sangria and sage, shaken into bracing equipoise. Far from a regionalist painter, Kessler has seen his works acquired into prominent national collections; and yet the more universal his organic/geometric studies become, the more they reflect his environs in the craggy, crystalline Southwest. Politics, as Tip O’Neill famously posited, is always local. So, Kessler suggests, is art.
—Richard Speer