Visual Arts

Brian Kershisnik's "NICE WORDS" Relies on You for Meaning

You'll probably like Utah painter Brian Kershisnik's work. His paintings, many of them mattress-size, aren't the kind that provoke controversy. There is no dark torture coming through in this work. If anything, there are peace and conviction here. And if you don't like his work, exactly, you probably won't dislike it.

What Kershisnik's art does provoke us to consider is the beauty of the minutiae we're drowning in already. That our own lives are a creative gold mine and that we can find meaning in the mundane is nothing new. In a world where a sitcom about nothing enjoys a successful run for almost a decade, we don't need a Giotto to illustrate our human experience through Biblical allegory.

Though Kershisnik's capable of painting the sacred (a 2006 work, Nativity, is currently on display in the Museum of Church History and Art in Salt Lake City), his show, "NICE WORDS," is onto something interesting and folksy about contemporary domesticity.

Kershisnik admits that his paintings usually start with a title, and that's not surprising. This work is visual art, no doubt, but there is a mixed-media quality to it — something of a literary edge, too.

In one oil on panel, Poem of a Small Departure, a woman in a blue/green dress — Kershisnik's women seem to wear only mid-calf-length, boat-neck dresses — looks up from what she's writing on a table, a table on which a miniature male figure rides away from her on his tiny bicycle. She holds a long-fingered hand to her head in a gesture of what? Passivity? Resignation? Sadness? It's not that Kershisnik's faces lack emotion; it's that they're as dimensionally flat and 2-D as the floors, walls, and furniture that surround them. And maybe this is one of the ways the artist refrains from "designing" our responses. Insert your own mojo here, her eyes offer.

In another oil, "I Can Never Do It When Someone Is Watching," an open-mouthed woman sits behind a table while three stern heads float above her in the corners. What it is — use her will to bend spoons? — she can never do is unclear. She holds a yellow number-two pencil in one hand and a piece of paper with the other. Also on the table are three teaspoons. One for each floating head? Written above and behind her, Bart Simpson-style, are the words "I can never do it when someone is watching." It seems weird or even abstract when described in this column, but it's just the opposite of abstract in its concreteness and relatability. "Oh, yeah, I can never do it when someone is watching, either."

But to say Kershisnik's paintings are concrete and human is not to say they mimic any kind of physical reality. They're situationally accurate — a couple steals a kiss while their child stands on a chair eating soup behind them; a man leaps over a snake; women hold, nurse, and play with their babies — but the figures and perspective are more akin to ancient Egyptian frontalism than how our bodies look when we kiss or eat soup.

"The Egyptians knew we didn't have frontal eyes. The 'idea' of the Pharaoh is more powerful than the guy," says Kershisnik. Moving the eye out of realm of reality and onto the profile, shoving it into a different convention to look at it, sometimes means that we can see it — whatever it is — more clearly. "It's like taking the dead spaces out of a play about a Tuesday afternoon," he analogizes.

Like the ancient Egyptians, Kershisnik believes in metaphor and understands that there's some kind of hyper-reality in mythological spaces. While he's not painting funerary on tomb walls, he understands that "good metaphors are closer to what is actually real than this life we live everyday."

So a toddler eats soup while an expectant black Labrador waits for a spill. But scratched into the father's black hair (or, perhaps, the black hair is painted over) are the words "I love you I love you I love you." Following the contour of the mother's head are more words: "I can hardly believe this." The toddler breathes "broth" into the air, and the painting takes on an ethereal William Blake-and-vespers quality that, in some strange way, does approximate this earthly experience more than, say, a photograph of the scene might.

The Egyptians almost always combined 2-D images with text. In some ways, Kershisnik seems as much a frustrated writer as painter. He works on as many as 20 paintings at once, he says, to avoid falling too in love with one story. Disorientation, shifting scale, are useful to him. He offers another analogy: Conversation and song are different. When we speak, our words don't come out in rhythms and melodies, as songs do, yet songs communicate by taking something real, like words, into a different realm.

What is Kershisnik trying to communicate? In "Father and Son Dancing (with Banners)," a work less grand in scale but more visceral and moving than others in the exhibit, a boy certainly too old and big to be held puts his arm around his father's neck while his father, resigned to the act and effort, squeezes his eyes in a kind of thanks. The boy's body, in an awkward axial position to the father's, flies at a sort of attention, like the banners in the background, his bare feet and legs conveying a vulnerability that even in-person eyeballs cannot.

Not all Kershisnik's paintings are literally wordy, which isn't to say they're completely textless. Those flat looks between and among his human subjects seem to bounce around the gallery space. It's like that shifty-eyed George Washington portrait in the Smithsonian that follows you no matter where you stand or what you look at. Only Kershisnik's subjects are communicating across canvases, not so much asking of each other, "What's your story?" as exchanging intimate, knowing nods.

Kershisnik paints the nice words and invites us, politely, even shyly, into the conversation.

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Tricia Parker
Contact: Tricia Parker