July 25 – August 5, 2019.
Five Points Annex Gallery
17 Water Street, Torrington CT 06790
Robert was sitting amidst his wonderful paintings and what blossomed was a lively and inspiring conversation. I have had the honor and delight of hearing Jessel speak on other occasions such as his 2014 show at Gilbert Gallery at Miss Porter’s School. (He had generously come to the gallery back then and rambled on about art and life to students who, if they didn’t already, someday will perhaps realize how lucky they were to have experienced his fervent brain, talent, originality, and good-humored droan).
Looking back at his website www.robertjessel.com is a journey well-worth taking as it shows you the roots of his current work that so remarkably fuses perception and imagination. In the work of the seventies, the two directions were co-existing but not yet synthesized: Marvelous, heartfelt landscapes are side by side with clunky, cartoony inventions. Both are fascinating.
In observing the current work at the Five Points Annex Gallery, I was most taken with the one that had been on the announcement card for the show.
Driving to Connecticut oil on canvas, 36 x 48”, 2019.
All of the elements I had previously admired in his work are there, the autobiographical sense, the imagination, the pictorial sophistication (in an abstract sense), the linear rhythms, and playfulness, the rich textural surface of the paint, and the color orchestration. The painting presents a minor harmony of green, orange, and red-violet as it reaches or hints toward a periphery of chromatic discord with the inclusion of cadmium red and yellow. The lines that appear to be black are in fact warm and cool variations from Prussian blue to raw umber.
The knobby improvised liveliness of the work is admirable and humoring. In a formal sense, what is new is the quasi-Futurist element, the places where we get to see the multi-time-lapse view of forms as in the face and driving hand hand of the guy at the wheel (presumably Jessel’s self portrait). The landscape out the windshield, is an undulating dance-a-thon of New England road-scapes, indeed the experience of the journey more than an illustration of the drive.
The Bridge oil on canvas, 48 x 36″, 2019, is seen from underneath and you can also see the treads on the underside of the boots of a hiker but the whole scene is perceived from above or from on top.
Jessel talked about the idea of presenting forms from under and from over, underneath-and-seen-from-above or above-and-seen-from-underneath and that he’d arrived at the almost Cubist amalgamation/construction of these vantages through a process of just drawing and redrawing the forms in the paintings. (He also touched upon his use of double lines to enhance the strength/emphasis, of the movement, and of the above/below verticals that become pinching diagonals, almost a trademark or branding quality in his work now).
Robert Jessel talked about his studies with Stanley Lewis whose persona seemed to emanate somewhat in Jessel’s associational generosity as he talked about his work. As a student of Leland Bell and Richard Pitts, Jessel visited Jean Helion at his studio in Chartres, France, back in the summer of 1972 (and Jessel’d been a bit of a punk with his youthful perhaps arrogant interrogations of Helion, he confesses perhaps regrettably in the hindsight and wisdom of age). Certainly the influences of these great artists and teachers is at work in Robert’s current paintings and he also cited the impact of the Futurist show he’d seen at the Guggenheim Museum in NYC. But the one he keeps harping back to is Wilbur Niewald because Wilbur insisted on the boot camp training in a rigorous perception of nature and thus helped Jessel develop the seeing and the skills that support the current work and always have.
This time-sequence aspect is in the large racket-ball painting too (at center on this wall).
Each painting has a full presence about it, a palpable painterly object-ness.
Another favorite was a still life that was sparked by a Derain painting, another mentor for Robert. And he mentioned an early Miro too.
Both the Derain at left and Miro at right present spatially the kind of experience we receive in motion, the Industrial Modern sense of seeing the world from many vantages as first articulated by Cezanne and later by Picasso and Braque. This together with the buttery Gustonesque or Monet-like application of Jessel’s paint somehow situates a particular planer attitude in a tactile, sensual sensibility. The intellectual and analytical innovations of the Cubists become embedded in an intuitive and personal expression.
Of course there’s a funky aspect to the work, a touch of Lester Johnson, of Robert Crumb, and even of Henri Rousseau and (Fernando Botero) in these deeply personal paintings. A direct processing of his own life (hikes along the Appalachian Trail, water and ball sports) is balanced with a quiet reflection on life. Both active and still, the sinuous curves and abrupt geometries of patterns dazzle and mollify. All come together in the joy and struggle of the paintings.
The dialectic of active and contemplative states in the work becomes the construction of the rhyming forms, a sense of Sienese distance amidst the opposite, the feeling of being pulled right into the sturm und drang or Hoffmanesque drama of tangible forms and places.
As Robert and I talked, my memories were sparked. Back in the 1970s, when I was painting at Stanford University and then at RISD and trying to figure out a relationship between and among invented and seen subjects, (and also just letting each emerge), the artists I looked to were Alfred Leslie and Andrew Wyeth, and then on the other hand Max Beckmann and Philip Evergood as well as the Soyer brothers. I’d seen Elmer Bischoff’s 1974/1975 show at the San Francisco Art Institute and was taking in the work of Deibenkorn, Park, Lobdell, and Oliveira. I later came to know at Yale and/or just before then in 1978, ’79, the work of Richard Ryan, Aaron Fink, and Dennis Congdon. And then my Yale classmates, Ken Mabrey and Bob Butternaugh, and I were the narrative painters and hence the bad boys though Chaet was certainly supportive, and sometimes Bailey, Johnson, Downes, Campbell, Bochner, and Pfaff were too. But mostly the bias was against content and rather in favor of formal work, with content scoffed upon. So the narrative pioneers were important to me. And Robert Jessel (though I was not to see his work ’til thirty five years later) was obviously also among the bush-whackers or trail blazers in this respect.
The light became cast on a few who were not necessarily the first to get there: Schnabel, Clemente, and Salle, and later Yuskavage and Currin. But a group of searching, inventive, autobiographical artists grew from the rubble, the counterculture, the underground, and certainly Robert Jessel was there and still is, gloriously honest, raw, and yet highly cultivated, refined, and musical in his paintings. He is driving, driving like hard rock.