Time Out New York / July 22–28, 2010

Jeff Kessel

Despite their evident complexity, Jeff Kessel’s untitled abstractions are the kind that tend to either persuade or alienate viewers on first look. The phrase painter’s painter was coined for artists like him, whose projects lean heavily on actual or attempted mastery of the medium’s internal grammar. While this approach can yield results that are widely lauded, it often impresses fellow practitioners more than viewers who aren’t card-carrying members of the guild. In the seven compositions that make up his New York solo debut, Kessel delves deeply into the physical properties of oils, brushing, dripping, spattering, scraping and wiping them around the support in an open-ended investigation of texture, transparency and color.

While a few of the results of Kessel’s endeavors convey a certain drama, the rest look uncomfortably like studio doodles writ large. In some instances, the artist borrows from tricksy French painter Bernard Frize; elsewhere, he takes a less self-aware quasi-AbEx tack. One piece is even reminiscent of Sigmar Polke’s Moderne Kunst from 1968—an unfortunate association given the late German’s mocking intent. But despite a lack of innovation, there are moments of beauty on display here: in the juxtaposition of a curlicue of dark gray with a dribble of pale yellow, for example, or in the shimmer of magenta through a splashy overlay of white. Kessel claims his paintings have a life of their own, but their success or failure remains dependent on his decisions—and on our willingness to indulge them.

Image: Jeff Kessel,Untitled, 2010