This will be the first of a team-up I’m creating between This Too Will Pass and implicit art. On this site, I’ll post some interviews with artists about the work that permitted me to discover them. On TTWP, I’ll publish exterviews, that is, discussions about everything but. Kessler’s exterview is here.
This is my first such effort, with David Kessler, a Philadelphia artist who recently did an exhibition of his vlogging project, Shadow World. Shadow World documents what David finds when he takes his video camera out under the elevated light rail tracks in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. Kensington is a huge, largely low-income neighborhood that resists change as much of the city attempts to re-imagine itself. At the exhibition, he supplemented the videos with 9 new paintings, all of which showed at the University of Pennsylvania’s International House from April 4th until May 30th.
For tech junkies, David and I conducted our interview using Google Docs. –BradyDale
Brady Dale: The first question that I’ve always had about “Under the El” is why just Kensington? For folks who might be reading this from outside of Philadelphia, I’ll try to characterize Kensington, but, David, you should correct me if you think I get it wrong because I’ve only lived here a few years.
Kensington is a low-income area. I’d call it working class but it seems like a lot of people there aren’t working. I associate it more with poor white people than I do with other races, but it’s definitely mixed racially, and your videos capture that well. Kensington is also seeing an influx of development, led by young artists and cool kids moving in ahead of the other builders. If that’s not a fair take on the place, let me know, but, either way, why did you choose the place and why do you keep going back?
David Kessler: It’s a pretty fair representation but I would have to adjust it slightly. Kensington is huge. Shadow World really only scratches the surface of the different neighborhoods in Kensington and even then I only shoot under the El, which leaves a lot out. There are neighborhoods where there are very few white people at all. There are large Puerto Rican communities and some Vietnamese communities. and it’s true that
artists and cool kids are moving in in droves but when you look at the scale of Kensington and really how deep those people are willing to go into the heart of it, I would not say that they make up a very large percentage of the overall character of it.
The areas known as South Kensington and New Kensington are where most of the development seems to be happening and are seeing the fastest changes in ethnicity and culture. There are pockets of places where artists live. I’ve lived inside and outside of those pockets and, however you might feel aboutgentrification, I’ve always managed to find people around me both in the arts community and outside of it that have made me feel welcome in a place that for the most part can be characterized as unwelcoming.
I have to be honest and say that I chose to live there because I was able to find cheap places to live, but you are right about my choice to keep going back. I have periodically taken up residence in South Philly as well but I can’t say that i was ever very excited about South Philly with the exception of the food, an area that North Philly is still largely lacking in (to be polite). It’s really the grittiness, it is diversity and sense of history that makes Kensington more exciting to me. It can get pretty raw but I actually find it
beautiful, startlingly so at times.
But I should add, although all those things (amplified by the power and presence of the El tracks) inspired me to make Shadow World, I don’t feel that Shadow World should be viewed as being about or representing Kensington. That was never my intention. that would be a much different project. The truth is, I leave out as much information
about Kensington as possible and just focus on the individual people that I meet and places that interest me without getting into any of the history or specific sociology of it. I don’t even think of Shadow World as being a documentary, I would not argue that it is not but that is not how I think about it.
Brady Dale: You definitely keep your documentaries limited in terms of their context. It’s definitely about the people (and the occasional alley cat), and now you’ve done a series of paintings based on the videos.
Here’s the most interesting thing to me about the paintings (and I’ll just acknowledge that the following is an unfair prejudice, but here we go): I tend to assume that people who do video (or photography) can’t draw or paint. So, here I am at an exhibition that people have primarily shown up to for the video, and right next to those videos is a bunch of paintings that demonstrate a very high degree of technical skill. Very unusual to see the two things by the same artist side by side, in my experience.
They are very, very small paintings. So small that I did a bad job of photographing them because I’m not used to getting that close to a subject. Is this the scale you typically work in? And why did you decide to supplement the videos with paintings?
David Kessler: To give you some background, I’m a painter that started messing around with video a couple of years ago. My degree is in painting with a minor in film. I started painting “seriously” at around grade 5. When i say that I don’t really consider Shadow World to be documentaries, it’s because my thought process while I make them is more similar to that of when I paint to that of constructing a documentary, which in my mind means more about constructing a story than an impression of one.
Like a lot of painters, I think, I became somewhat apathetic to painting in the mid 90’s and my desire to so something “important” overshadowed my enjoyment of painting because it was fun. This I attribute to Art School and the notion that painting was dead that the Art Schools that I went to did not seem to argue with. I was never one to stick with one medium for very long anyway and when film, video and sculpture took hold I kind of let painting go for many years but I still considered it to be at the root of everything that I did.
The series of 9 paintings in the show now is the first series of paintings that I have made in many years. The small scale allows me to work in a way that feels more intimate and analytical to me, almost scientific, at my desk with sharp tools. they are done using a scratching technique that I have been using for a long time. Part of what makes Shadow World (the videos) interesting to me is the deconstruction of a moment, the ability to go back and focus on a short piece of time, analyze, interpret, arrange, manipulate, retell and distribute. These are things that interest me because they relate to how we digest our own memories and experiences. The paintings are intended to do a couple of things. One is to take that process to the next level by then analyze and interpreting the videos into a different medium, that much more separate from the original moment. To the viewer, my intention is to both clue them into my original thought processes of the videos as well as allow them to come to the paintings with a whole set of memory and experience based on the videos, altering the experience of looking at the paintings.
Brady Dale: If this is your first exhibit of paintings in years, then this show marks a somewhat important moment in your history as an artist. Where do you stand on painting now? Is it important? Is it “dead”? Does it need something else alongside it to justify it? Or have your priorities simply shifted?
David Kessler: I certainly don’t think of painting as dead anymore. These days, I don’t make too much distinction between mediums in my own work anymore. I just use what I think will be most successful. I was excited about showing some paintings again. I’m a pretty good painter and it would be a shame to not do something with a skill that i had been refining for so long. With that said, art still needs to satisfy me on several levels. I need it to speak to me on an intellectual level as well as an aesthetic one. Painting is so much about surface and I am naturally more critical of it than most other art forms so it does happen to be the art form that I am least frequently impressed by. I generally look in the windows of galleries showing painting and walk right by but that is also because painting to me seems like the art form that has become most formulaic. I think any artist can go to PAFA and learn all the tricks to be able to sell work. It’s not hard to impress most people with paintings once you understand technique but that doesn’t make a painting good to me. Interesting subject matter and compelling content in a painting is an incredibly elusive thing. But this is also why when I find a painter that I think is good, I am typically more impressed than I am with most other artists. I can’t say whether or not I will be showing more paintings any time soon. I don’t have any immediate plans to but I don’t rule out the idea.
Brady Dale: I think you are dead on about how easy it is to make a painting look impressive. In drawing, I know, all it takes to make a simple line drawing look “impressive” is to throw some cross-hatching in. Much trickier to get some substance in there. I think a lot of people look at artwork and find it impressive because it “must have been hard,” but what does that matter? I’m sure it’s hard to do taxes for Microsoft, but I don’t want to see the spreadsheets.
It seemed like something was missing in your answer about what you need in art to satisfy you. You said it needs to get you on an intellectual level as well as an aesthetic one. What about emotional? Are you going for an emotional hit in your work? Does it have an emotional hit for you? If so, where? A person could come away from one of your videos feeling anything from pathos to humor to tragedy to out-and-out odd/other-worldiness. Where do they get you?
David Kessler: Oh yeah, certainly emotional as well but as far as Shadow World is concerned the emotional element comes out when it is given to me. I can’t go out shooting with the intention of getting someone to say or do something that will elicit an emotional reaction. The most I can do is edit to put some emphasis on that moment. What i can do is go out with a very clear defined concept and pay as much attention to getting well composed compelling shots. I don’t believe in using emotional devices (like music or fades or slow-mo or any other number of tricks that filmmakers use) to tell the viewer how they should feel about a situation. the emotional element comes from being open to it but
there are times when it doesn’t happen and I have to feel like i have
enough substance there that the work is still strong without it. I think the work is far stronger if people can have different or mixed reactions and if they know that their reaction is their own and not fed to them. The videos may or may not elicit the same emotions as the original moments for me. in most cases, they can’t. I don’t have emotional reactions to my own work. I know when it is there but I am reacting to the moment not the video, which is something that no one else can truly do. I do feel that there is far more humor in the videos than most people seem to be (or admit to) seeing. My sense of humor tends to be pretty dark and dry and i don’t think that humor and tragedy are mutually exclusive but I would never tell someone that they should see something as being funny or tragic if they are only seeing one thing and not the other.
Also, back to the last topic, i look at drawing and painting differently. it may be because drawing tends to be a better record of the artists mind and hand in a given moment than painting but I can much more easily appreciate a drawing for the artist line work and the types of marks that they make despite the drawing’s content than that of a painting that seems to demand much more intent for me. This may have something to do with the factor of the moment of conception often being eliminated through the layers of paint. This might also explain why my paintings look more like drawings than most paintings do.
BradyDale: I have a feeling we agree on the parts that are funny and the parts that aren’t. I find Shadow World funny all the time, but more in that odd, sort of tilt your head and smile kind of funny rather than actually laughing.
My Young Philly Politics friend, Jennifer, says that you used to (or still do) go to Dunkin Donuts in the middle of the night and draw people. Is that true? What’s the story there? It’s an interesting concept in and of itself, but it also seems to echo Shadow World in that it’s another example of you getting out in the city and documenting your impressions.
David Kessler: That was a project that I was working on several years back and it was definitely the predecessor to Shadow World. I was living on Snyder in South Philly at the time. I wanted to make a serialized comic strip in The Philadelphia Independent, Matthew Schwartz’s now defunct newspaper. The strip would essentially be an illustrated documentary of the people who, for lack of a better word, “lived” in Dunkin Donuts on Broad and Snyder. There were a group of regulars, very few I think were actually homeless but you would be able to find most of them at Dunkin Donuts at any given hour, pretty much everyday. Besides the regulars, a bus to Atlantic City stopped directly in front of Dunkin Donuts (probably factoring greatly to its appeal) and there seemed to also be some kind of gambling operation being run out of there, too. For a good couple of years, it was just a fascinating place. I was also interested in the very severe separation between employee and “customer” and the exception to this in one man who seemed to have an honorary position there whom, as far as I could tell, was being paid in do-noughts.
I was using what was essentially a scratchbaord technique on ceramic tiles to draw the panels based on photographs that i was taking as I tried to meet and integrate myself into the population. Unfortunately, i didn’t get too far with the project. I saw how good it could have been, but I suppose I did not have the tolerance to spend that much time in Dunkin Donuts or the confidence to be able to really engage the people there. The strip ran once in issue #3 of the Independent and then I let it go. Over the year or so that followed, I saw Dunkin Donuts gradually get made over, progressively losing all of the seats to discourage people from loitering and I saw what would have become the logical ending of the story as the last of the tables where stripped away.
I guess you can say that Shadow World was partially born out of my regret for not continuing with the Dunkin Donuts project but it was years after Dunkin Donuts when i first picked up a video camera which for me made the idea that much more conceivable to accomplish.
BradyDale is the editor of ThisTooWillPass. Now, read the exterview with David.