From a distance, it seems impossible that Michael Kessler’s glossy paintings are just layers of acrylic applied to wood. They look more like windows opening onto abstract visions of the natural world. Step even farther back, and the works resemble the stark, boldly colored geometries that accompany abstract painting’s introductory paragraphs in an art history textbook. Then step in close, and a world of textures is revealed. At each level of observation, Kessler’s pieces undergo shifts subtle to surprising.
Graftings, the Pennsylvania-born artist’s first Santa Barbara exhibition, features an impressively large collection of Kessler’s recent work, all in a broadly similar aesthetic vein. Thick, looping black lines swirl and tangle on the images’ rearmost plane. Set on top, layers of color ranging from completely opaque to seemingly translucent allow the lines’ curves and edges to bleed through to varying degrees. Uneven lattices of rigid lines, from weighty to nearly insubstantial, divide the pictures into separate panes with their own colors and textures. It’s as if a variegated stained-glass boundary separates the viewer from a series of planes, each one containing less rigidity than the last.
While the colors-pale and metallic shades of beige, red, green, and blue-add to the experience, what’s most intriguing about Kessler’s new works shows up in the textures. Unless the viewer is willing to break the rules and start poking the paintings’ surfaces, there’s an element of uncertainty: Is a given element actually textured, or does it just effectively create the illusion of texture? Faced with these polished-licorice pen strokes, glassy yet imperfect color fields, and leafy surfaces like elaborate vegetal vein networks, the temptation to break the “look, don’t touch” statute pulls insistently indeed.