I’ve spent twenty minutes in Kevin Appel’s Paintings show and find myself back where I started, near the entry. I need this period of just looking at an artist’s work before I can start using my mind – the process reminds me of learning hopscotch or intuiting grammar from conversations in a foreign tongue. Here I begin making notes.
(Good grief, these brushstrokes are beautiful. No wonder people paint. It’s like cheating.) Salton Sea (room 2) is masked with a large area of wide brushstrokes, these are in a shade of white. Now returning to the first painting in the gallery, Salton Sea (window), I see that the not-quite-label-dots obscuring the surface of this painting also contain brushstroke information. (One layer of information that is, for in Appel’s work there exist several layers each of visual, physical and conceptual information.
There is a photographic base to these paintings – Appel takes pictures of landscapes (“in the landscape,” the artist says) and he mechanically applies them to treated canvas and then by hand he paints over them. (Here I want to keep in mind the insubstantial nature of photographic images.) Allow me to digress: looking at Salton Sea (heap), I find black, oily smears, these are veined as though they are spreading or are under pressure. (There are such colored smears on several paintings in the show.) The smears remind me of chemical mishaps that might be experienced using Polaroid cameras, when the developer would squeeze out of the pouch across the photo print. Appel’s paintings, which were begun in the camera, make reference to the photographic process again and again.
Expanding on my digression, there are denim blue and white stripes painted in Salton Sea (green rug). It might be that a wide brush in each color has been loosely dragged across the canvas. There are four areas of this treatment, and I suspect a fifth that has been covered. These are rectangles that have been irregularly cut into, or overlaid with oddly-shaped layers of (several) whites. These no-longer-rectangles are placed around the edge of the painting and schematically divide the canvas into a four way grid. Any evenness that might result from this classical and formal grid is disrupted by the strangely shaped organic and polygonal visible remnants of photograph and overlays of paint.
Hmm. Appel takes these photographs himself – they are his photographs (in past work Appel used found and chosen photos). Such is made clear in the press release and so it must have importance to him. The PR also states of the Salton Sea that its geography exists as “a complicated space of utopian collapse and a failed site of sorts.” Artists and novelists have for years used the human-conflicted nature of the Salton Sea as metaphor, and by now the utopian/dystopian dialectic is a commonplace.
So I wonder: in Appel’s previous work I recall his use of recognizable (found) images, birds and trees, etc., and in these new paintings what I see is texture more than image in the photographs, and the information – while it remains specific to a site, a landscape – is less readable. I must relinquish my need for images to carry intelligence, and instead see them as similar to brush strokes. Appel’s flat and granular images mirror the insistent yet restrained physicality of his paint application. Finally, if the image (abstract as it is shown to be) slips into physicality, then what becomes of the concrete? Could these layers of paint be without corporeal existence? Recognizing that history is an idea, are the pentimenti of these paintings virtual? (Here I think of Agnes Martin’s barely present graphite lines and their near-cosmic depths.)
Where paint intrudes on or bleeds over the photograph in these paintings, matter appears to lose substance: for example in Salton Sea (room 2), a smear of brushy white escapes its rectangular bounds into the photographic image, and here the paint resembles that white-out blur in a photograph that is prized for its ability to express pure light.
The volumes in Kevin Appel’s paintings remind me of Donald Moffett’s chunky monochromes, with their extruded paint and video projections. Appel achieves similar space in his paintings using quite different means: where Moffett engages in an activism of excess with texture, Appel employs a Formalist restraint. Both artists treat images as layers of raw information that can manifest physical space as well as intellectual content.
Looking at Kevin Appel’s paintings, my eyes and my brain perceive shifts and changes: depths that become voids, images – which might be “real” – that have no substance, and layers that appear to occupy the same field.
In the show Paintings, Kevin Appel’s familiar non-objective approach to rendering architecture and landscape deeply informs his re-objectifying of images, and the artist’s past work becomes a base for the leap of these new paintings. If stories from an artist’s life are contained in their work, then perhaps Kevin Appel has his feet on the ground that he photographs, even as he reaches beyond to something new.