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Life Changes the Artist . . . And the Art

Michael Kessler is a painter of abstract landscapes with a difference: He is all about natural processes — erosion, sedimentation, layering — the way nature builds up the landscapes we see. But this was not always so. In the early days of his career, he is 57, his landscapes were more the expected, angst-heavy abstracts of 1980’s New York City, where he lived and found success in many solo shows. But then in 1990 he won a Rome Prize — rather like a Fulbright for artists and students of art history and criticism — and spent a year in Italy, where his view of nature and of color began to change. He became obsessed with the processes of nature. The pointed, angry, paranoid shapes that often characterized his earlier work had already given way to calmer, rounder, softer images after he left the city for his native Pennsylvania in 1987. But in Rome and Italy he was surrounded by walls of art, worn patinas and frescoes. The size of his paintings grew, doubled, tripled, and new elements appeared, especially an imperfect, idiosyncratic grid. Kessler’s palette now incorporated richer, Italianate colors: Sienna reds, bronze, oranges, rust, copper and even gold. Paintings glowed with the warmth of the Italian sun. His work was transformed. Then in 1995 he moved to Santa Fe, where he lives today, and his work changed again. Paintings alternated between feelings of depth or of flatness, surfaces glowed with a translucent finish or lay under a flat, desert-like dullness. The juxtaposition of colors for drama and contrast continued — black against red, for example — but desert colors appeared: wonderful sage greens, soft mint, desert sand and stone gray. All built up, layer by layer, in a painstaking process. In Argazzi Art’s first one-man show of Kessler — interestingly, his single pieces have been Argazzi’s best sellers since the gallery opened — Judith Singelis has brought together a cross section of the artist’s work which includes both translucent and flat finishes. In the gallery’s first room, several coppery-gold paintings literally shine under brilliant, translucent varnish. The natural shapes of veiny leaves and ferns show faintly through multiple layers of scraped-on paint. The works are warm, translucent and — in another oddity of Kessler pictures — perfectly communicative whether hung vertically or horizontally. A lovely painting in greens with a white grid overlay under a flat finish, dotted with small splashes of crimson like drops of blood, hangs in the second room over a stairwell. In the back room, paintings of similar color are hung in small groupings. Best are two paintings of various shades of red and several with light browns juxtaposed against red and white or against darker browns with white and charcoal gray. Some of the paintings, though I doubt Kessler would agree, look like Google maps of highway exchanges in a flat, barren geography. Others are like the leaves you placed on paper and then screen painted in elementary school art class. They have the interesting quality of remembered landscapes and time. Kessler and his wife will be in Lakeville for the show’s opening; in fact they are staying two nights in Salisbury, and the artist will adjust placement of the paintings. Singelis says he is a friendly, “bear of a man,” who loves to talk and answer questions about his work. Michael Kessler, Art … a la Carte is at Argazzi Art, 22 Millerton Road, in Lakeville, CT, through Oct. 23. An opening reception for the artist will be Sept. 3, from 5 to 7 p.m. Call 860-435-8222 or go to www.argazziart.com for fall hours.

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