Art News - Reviews: New York
David Kassan – Solitudes, Gallery Henoch
In this splendid show, David Kassan’s realist – not photorealist – portraits (all 2013), including nine paintings, eight studies, and numerous drawings, captured and portrayed him, his family, and friends, as multidimensional characters. Set against gold or gray abstract backgrounds that often resemble street graffiti, his characters reveal themselves through their postures and facial expressions. Kassan observes his subjects, without passing judgment.
In Epilogue, a young woman floats against a gray background littered with large letters that don’t spell recognizable words. She wears a gray slip and looks troubled. She turns her face away from us and holds her shoulders back; her bony knees touch. She almost looks pinned against thebackground, like an insect in a scientific display. As with all Kassan’s individuals, she is not simply thoughtful, but is consumed by her thoughts. The painting A Letter to My Mom shows an older woman, with long curly red hair, standing with her heavily veined handsclasped. She wears a dark V-neck sweater and jeans. Her eyes are closed and downcast, her face wrinkled. Running above her head are the words in Hebrew that read, “This painting is my way to spend more time with you” The father in Portrait of My Dad appears less touched by sadness; his gaze kindly.
Kassan’s charcoal studies have an entirely different kind of intensity. Self Portrait Study is stark. Kassan looks straight ahead with dark circles under his eyes, a full expressionless mouth and deeply shaded cheeks.
For this moving show, Kassan created the substance of a novel without words.
Outwin Bocheaver Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C. Catalog Essay
The Portrait Now and Then
Although only a few of the portraits in this competition work with untraditional materials and forms, all wrestle with two perennial questions: how to balance resemblance and artistry, and how to make a portrait that exceeds its generic definition to the ‘artistic rendering of an individual.’ David Kassan takes on both challenges in Portrait of My Mother, Roberta (fig. 4). In some ways the painting appears to erase the intervention of the artist and promote direct confrontation with the sitter. The particularized features and detailing of the wrinkles, veins, and sagging flesh suggest an individualized likeness, and the sitter appears to meet us eye-to-eye as she looks out of the frame. Kassan furthers this sense of direct confrontation by erasing the marks of his brush, at least in representing Roberta. At the same time, the work draws attention to itself as art in the painterly background filled with undecipherable marks and letters. Thus in placing a painted figure that seems transparent to the real against an opaque, painterly background, the portrait claims to be both nature itself and entirely artifice. The work, in fact, proposes no chance encounter with the mother, who is carefully and artfully posed. And although Roberta is hunched over with hands firmly clasped in a prayerlike gesture, when combined with her focused gaze, her posture does not suggest resigned acceptance of declining strength.
Although artists from Albrecht Durer to Salvador Dali portrayed their mothers, today the best known maternal portrait is Whistler’s depiction of his mother, entitled Arrangement in Grey and Black #1 (fig. 5). Here is a good example of a work that both in title and appearance draws attention to the portrait as an artful composition of colors arranged on the canvas. Kassan’s portrait might be called Arrangement in Grey and Darker Grey, for it is rendered in a subtle palette enlivened primarily by the auburn of Roberta’s hair. Yet whereas Whistler transformed his mother into an aesthetic object drained of personhood, Roberta appears as a living subject staring at us with as apprasing eye. Kassan’s portrait therefore recalls both the psychic power of the mother and the objectifying power of the gaze, here turned on the real viewer.
David Jon Kassan – Solitudes
Raw, poignant and profoundly honest, David Jon Kassan’s work aesthetically captures humanity in its true form. As an artist, Kassan acts as an empathetic intermediary between the subject he portrays and the viewer. More than simply replicating his subjects Kassan seeks to understand them. He seeks to capture the essence of those he paints, imbuing them with their own voice. They communicate with the viewer interpersonally and we see them through our own eyes. Our gaze transcends the picture plane and permeates deep into the subject’s psyche. We are moved by Kassan’s depictions, captivated by powerfully expressive hands, pensive faces, and flesh that appears warm to touch. Kassan’s portraits pulsate with the lives of his sitters – the weighty streams-of-consciousness of past experiences, feeling and introspection.
This is what reality means to Kassan – preserving the realness of nuanced emotion and expression emanating from the people he paints. Kassan’s technical mastery of oil paint combined with adept draftsmanship enables him to fluently represent what he sees. This is evident in the stunning flesh tones Kassan achieves. Transparent layers of oil paint are built up, forming an intricate lattice of veins, blood and skin. Through this light enters and is reflected back, infusing the subject with veridical luminosity. We can also sense movement and life beneath the undulating creases and folds of clothing. It is the artist’s intent to control the medium of oil paint so that it is not part of the viewer to subject equation. Kassan facilitates an interface between subject and viewer with which he is conscious not to interfere. The technical aspect of his work is thus a means to an end; an end rooted in the viewer’s experience.
We find inherent contradictions in Kassan’s work as it oscillates between representation and transformation, reality and abstraction. We see this in his backgrounds, which are graphic and fragmentary, yet at the same time highly refined ‘trompe-l’oeil’ texture studies reminiscent of the work of Franz Kline and Robert Rauschenberg. Weathered, graffiti-marked walls, dissected by peeling paint and torn down posters, serve as descriptive patinas. Like the figures before them, these surfaces import a sense of history, wherein the past, present and future culminate. Time is an unbroken continuum of experience, change, growth and decay, and both subject and background are visceral embodiments of this process. Kassan’s inclusion of flayed urban exteriors in his paintings invites the viewer to appreciate that which is typically overlooked and deemed mundane.
Ultimately, there is a truth and timelessness to Kassan’s work because it is so deeply human. His subjects are distilled in an exact moment in time, patiently contemplating their present. We share in this present-moment appreciation, this slowing down of time, and see life for what it is.
Interview With Figurative Painter David Jon Kassan
by Emily Waldorf
In an age of post-abstract representational painting, Brooklyn-based artist David Jon Kassan's stark realism separates him from the pack. With a critical eye for anatomy, he expertly captures the subtle nuances of his subjects' physiognomies through the use of oil on panel, charcoal, and graphite in his life-size paintings and drawings. He recently completed a documentary, Drawing Closer to Life: Documenting an Approach to Drawing, that records his meticulous studio process in action. David is currently working towards his second solo exhibition at Gallery Henoch in September 2011 in Chelsea and is teaching a workshop in the Belgian countryside this July.
Emily Waldorf: You cite the Ashcan School of American Realists as an inspiration. Why realism? What other artists influence you, both contemporary and historical?
David Jon Kassan: Realism is a philosophy as opposed to a style. For me, painting is about observing and recording my existence as accurately as I can, it's my way of understanding the world around me and staying constantly engaged with it, the more carefully and patiently I look at what interests me in the world the more faithfully and honestly I can document it. It is only through intense, subtly nuanced observation that we develop an understanding of the psychology of the subject. I'm hugely influenced by the stark truthfulness of Lucien Freud, Andrew Wyeth, and Antonio Garcia, as well as the psychological aspects of Jerome Witkin and Francis Bacon. I am also inspired by the usual suspects such as Rembrandt, Alma Tadema, Bouguereau, Sargent, and Waterhouse. They made paintings that breathe. I'm also a huge fan of the New York school painters, Rauschenberg, Klein, Jasper Johns, Twombly, to name only a few.
EW: What's your philosophy on the nature of the portrait? What do you think it fulfills within society and what should its purpose be?
DJK: Not sure if I have one. I'm aware of the history of the genre and I rarely do portrait commissions. When I do, they are rarely any good. I tend to paint my subjects exactly how they are and that is not always cool to the sitter, they want to look younger, thinner and with lower hairlines. I sort of feel that the role of a portrait in society is to represent the sitters, we see paintings of Shakespeare and we believe that it is what he looked like, well maybe a little older, fatter and with a higher hairline. I guess it would be cool if the portraits that were painted really did look like the sitter or expressed some sort of emotion that gave the viewers in the future a sense of the sitter's pathos at the time it was painted.
EW: How do you view the concepts of the real, the hyper-real, the authentic and the imagined playing out within your works?
DJK: I want my paintings to give the viewer a true sense of reality - that includes but is not limited to depth, scale and a tactile surface as well as the real sense of what the subject looks like and is feeling at the time that I painted them. There should be a discourse between the viewer and the subject, to feel as though they are in a way connected. My goal is not to set a narrative but rather to have the viewer bring their own experiences to the painting and the subject as they would if they had seen the subject on the street in real life.
EW: Your figures are often set against a more abstract and somber background. Is this juxtaposition intentional? How do you create the background?
DJK: The backgrounds in my works are referenced from thousands of photos that I have taken around Manhattan; street art, graffiti, torn advertisements, stains, construction barricades. I'm very interested in the anthropological aspects of the city; there are so many different layers that all come together in these random abstractions. It's easy to see where the Abstract Expressionists gained their inspiration. I usually compile these reference photos into Photoshop collages, looking at them as different formalistic abstractions where rigid typography is part of the composition as well rough accidental shapes caused from ripping or staining. I develop the backgrounds in Photoshop with the drawings of the subjects to compose the pieces, which I'll use as a basis for a final painting.
EW: Do you remember your first interaction with art? When did you decide you wanted to become an artist?
DJK: My first interactions with art were vague daydreams that I grew up trying to figure out. While I was young, around the age of four, my family lived in Germany and my father was a pilot in the Air Force. We were able to travel all over Europe to all of the great museums and churches. These first interactions were very confusing to me as I grew up and would have deja vu moments when I was older from seeing paintings and sculptures in books. When did I decide to be an artist? Hmmm, I don't think that I really ever decided to become one, it's just something that I did, something that came naturally enough to me that it wasn't work to learn more about it or how I could really push myself to get better.
EW: You recently completed an instructional DVD and also do a lot of teaching. It seems like teaching drawing and painting is central to your artistic practice. How was your own experience in art school? What kind of formal training did you have?
DJK: Teaching is a huge part of what I do. I love to think about what I do out loud, and the best way to do this is to teach. I usually learn a lot from the students in my workshops, because we work to build the classes around a collaborative environment where everyone is working towards the same goal of learning how to observe and see the subject well, because everyone brings different approaches and experiences with them, the other students and myself learn new methods that we can add into what we do. My own experiences with art school are very varied, I studied theory and art history at Syracuse University, the program there was less drawing from life and technique based. Syracuse was incredibly freeing for my mind because there was no reading and regurgitating like I had gone through in high school, so going from the whole non creative environment to a creative environment was definitely something that really opened my mind. In NYC I wanted to develop my observational skills as well as technique so that I would have a better grasp of how to vocalize and paint my concepts. I decided to go back to school at the Art Students League to study life painting full time and better develop my observational skills and understanding of how to approach a painting of the model. I studied with Sharon Sprung, Harvey Dinerstein and Costa Vavagiakis. These technical classes helped me discover how to paint instead of what to paint. A balance between something that is expertly technical as well as very carefully thought out and conceived is something that is extremely important to me.
EW: Does living and working Brooklyn influence your work at all?
DJK: Brooklyn is a huge influence to my work, both in its community and as an environment. Everything in my work is autobiographical. I want my work to reflect this area. The area is rough and urban, yet is very vivid visually; everything is constantly in a state of flux and change, that's why there is such a vibrant young art scene here.
EW: What's a typical day in your studio like?
DJK: Hectic. I work on five or six different paintings at a time, as I figure out different concepts I can spread the info throughout all of the pieces. Some days I'm preparing surfaces to paint, other days I'm painting the models, or building up a background or doing studies for new paintings. Most of my work is done outside of the studio wandering around Brooklyn and Manhattan just trying to get a feel for the city.
EW: What are some of your favorite art world hangout spots? Do you go to a lot of openings, museums, galleries, and other artists' studios?
DJK: My ultimate favorite art world hang out is the Metropolitan Museum, especially the drawing room, where you can "order" almost any drawing in their collection and they will bring it out for you to study on an easel. I go to a lot of openings at different galleries each month, usually I'll end up at Marlborough Gallery, the Joshua Liner Gallery or Gallery Henoch. At the end of most gallery nights I'll end up at 151 Rivington with my artist friends. We always go to one another's openings and support each other during the Armory Week or down in Miami. Most of the time I'll end up at the Half King right after the openings, because it's pretty much the only decent bar between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues in Chelsea.
ÆQAI - Drawing and Contemporary Portraiture:
By: Marlene Steele
Drawing, the tool of observation and investigation employed by artists even in this technological time of electronic gadgetry, is as diversified as the number of individuals wrestling with its control. It is a fascinating opportunity to observe how another navigates their drawing process. This is insightful particularly when the exhibited work, so tidy and cleanly framed, seems devoid of the misadventure, calamity and uncertainty that every seriously focused artist experiences in the process. What is the purpose of drawing and what is its statement relative to the trends today especially the hyper-realism that is current in the art world?
Those of us who have experienced the struggle and the joy of pursuing a good drawing seek answers to these questions either formally or subconsciously in our work. I pursued my questions with David Kassan in response to his local exhibition and his participation at the Portrait Society of America Conference in Philadelphia where I tracked with his portrait drawing seminar.
His recent exhibition aptly titled “PROCESS” (Manifest Gallery, Cincinnati) featured a serially stepped out piece as well as several highly finished works. Kassan’s drawn heads are rendered into continual informed surfaces that effectively records or documents the viewed for the viewer. These pieces probe the viewer intently from the illusional space of the 2-dimensional surface. Kassan admittedly articulates his surfaces with a pictorial acuity that challenges the photographic image. This exhibition was coupled with a demo evening during which one could observe David’s drawing process in the Manifest Studio.
Working from the live model, David began the work with pressed pastel pans and a sponge tipped knife, David navigated a life sized head from broad forms in bold values to an articulated finish finessed with fine modeled features very true to the model’s likeness. The support sheet was a smooth medium value grey and the medium was pastel and pastel pencils. Several times during the demo, David wiped sections of the drawing down brushing away the built up white pastel and launching a restatement over previous perceptions. This state and restate process which could also be seen as additive and subtractive was intriguing especially because the highly developed surfaces of the finished portrait betray no allusion to this process.
Kassan’s work exemplifies a technical acuity that focuses on observational accuracy, a leading trend in the current return to realism.Though these renderings are often perceived as photographic, Kassan insists that the scrim of his own personal truth is inherent in the confrontation. As an artist, he selects the person represented as well as all aspects of the act of viewing, the choice of view and the lighting. Kassan also searches the model for a defining peculiarity the recording of which will make this work unique in its statement. His professed fascination with the emotional content of the illusional image lies at the base of this pursuit. David contends that this connection is intensified by the realism of the continual tonal surface and the absence of evidence of the artist’s rendering hand. The purposeful recording of a document devoid of the artist interface intensifies the relationship between the viewer and the viewed. His pictorial emphasis on accuracy and illusion searches for emotional connection in the real world, forcing the viewer to engage in the viewing standoff.
American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2009
A prolific contemporary realist, Brooklyn-based David Kassan combines abstract backgrounds with portraiture and figurative skill in experimental arrangements. His recent exhibition at Gallery Henoch, “Introspections,” comprised of drawings and trompe l’oeil “texture studies” in oil, as well as large figurative paintings, demonstrated his evolving interest in the effects of time on the material world, in particular the spaces of distressed walls. His deliberate contrast between clear, smooth flesh and tattered backgrounds sets up a tension between youth and age that remains to be resolved but is reminiscent of the bittersweet contrast we find in ancient cities such as Paris or Venice, in which countless fleeting generations of young people inhabit crumbling Renaissance buildings that will inevitably outlast them. The textures of his walls are material statements of the ravages of time on space, but not necessarily of meaningful layers of history that might be implicit therein. Only in talking with the artist did it become clear how the backgrounds of certain portrait paintings of young women, including Up Against (64-by-43 inches) and his self-portrait conceived in Portugal, General Strike (30-by-21 inches), were inspired by Robert Rauschenberg and Franz Kline.
Creation of a virtual reality has long been the task and delight of representational painters. Today’s figurative artists, however, may be practicing a form of Mannerism but without cynicism. “Supermannerism” in postmodern architecture was described at length by C. Ray Smith (in his 1977 book of the same name). Smith’s own interior designs sometimes incorporated “superimpositions,” slide projections of classical images within the confines of a small apartment. In one example, the grandeur of the Sistine Chapel expands the walls of a low-ceilinged room, setting up an improbable counterpoint to the reality of banal modern furnishings in an undecorated space—an example of admittedly ironic uses of “instant” iconography.
Perhaps, in today’s youth movement of under-forty realist painters, we see a playful exploration that does not aim to critique the world outside of the picture plane, but rather to exhibit skills and to explore the tensions between contemporary subject and traditional formal rendering, between expectation and perception. Certainly, the concern to show off painterly abilities is at the forefront, but when realist skill depicts an improbable subject, then we look again. Kassan gives us a space, a disjunction, in which to contemplate, rather than merely admire. His newest interest, motion through space, appears in one of his most recent works. Uncharacteristic of his large and mid-range portraits, Echo (2008, 35-by-25 inches) demonstrates Kassan’s interest not only in time and its effects upon the material world, but in depicting perceptible motion. By blurring the fingers and left side of the face of a young woman, as in a slow-shuttered photograph, Kassan gives an effect of movement that at first suggests the achievements of the Italian Futurists. Good examples are the striding silver-gilt sculpture of Boccioni and the well-known Balla painting, Dynamism of a Dog on Leash (1912), which depicts (from a tall person’s perspective) the multiple movements of the scurrying little dog’s feet, its fluffy tail and hairy flapping ears, its doggy forward enthusiasm, the swinging leash-chain limning superimposed parabolic forms in space next to the owner’s moving feet—all simultaneously perceivable as in a photographic multiple exposure. And yet, to look again, Kassan’s painting Echo is not exactly doing these sorts of things. The young woman, painted in his characteristic glowing realistic style (good health exudes from the flesh he paints), seems to be emerging from one plastic dimension into another, dragging its plasma toward the surface, slowing the effect of kinesis to make the viscosity of space penetrated visible. She, the anonymous subject, suggests that extension in space is a matter of layering many space-time planes over one another like glazes of semi-translucent lacquers. That her dark eyes look straight at the viewer, creating an engagement with her mysterious movement, is an enchanting element that is offered as reality due to the representational skill. Is she the ancient goddess named Echo? Or is this auditory allusion a metaphor for the echoing smears of her person moving in time-space?Another slight departure from his paintings to date is a small portrait of his aunt, seen from a slightly elevated angle. Our gaze is directed down at her careworn face, which seems to look inward or contemplate the space beyond her clasped hands with splayed fingernails, the finest crow’s-feet around the downcast eyes. The closer one gets to the surface, the more refined the details reveal themselves to be—which is an experience contrary to the usual one of looking closely into the surface of painting thick with paint (say, a Turner or a Monet haystack or a Seurat act of Pointillism), in which we perceive the figure dissolving into brushstrokes. Kassan prefers smooth surfaces for his figures, slightly raised and roughened surfaces for the backgrounds.Kassan’s painting technique is the same as for his meticulously rendered drawings in graphite on cream or black and white charcoal on grey paper. Cross-hatching delicate lines to create volume in his impeccable drawings—whether of his own eye, a friend’s nose, his child’s face, a model’s collarbone beneath the flesh—is a technique carried into the application of pigments in various colors as he perceives them in the light reflected by the model. This results in a realistic impression of blood and nerves alive beneath the skin; delicate blues and greens come toward the viewer, whose eye spontaneously mixes the glazed colors into the illusion of a living surface.For this young, well-traveled, well-educated and persistent painter, there are many conscious influences, from Leonardo to his mentors from college and the Art Students League. Like Picasso and de Kooning before him, Kassan has a mastery of draughtsmanship and design. His ongoing quest to develop his vision beyond the very precise depictions of people and surfaces is a conscious daily effort. With his acquired skills so readily evident now, it will be a pleasure to see in what directions his personal quest will take him and how that growth and expansion will manifest in the work. Since 1999, when he graduated from Syracuse University College of Visual and Performing Arts, David Kassan has steadily painted, shown and sold his work to a variety of collectors, including the Seven Bridges Foundation of Greenwich, Connecticut, Peter Pennoyer Architects and many private collections as far afield as Mumbai, Lisbon, Paris, the Bahamas, Passaic and Manhattan. “Introspections” ran from March 12 through April 4, 2009, at Gallery Henoch, 555 West 25th Street, New York, New York 10001. Telephone (917) 305-0003. On the web at www.galleryhenoch.comAmerican Arts Quarterly, Spring 2009, Volume 26, Number 2.