Chicago, Jun. 2014: Wesley Kimler, the irascible painter and raconteur, spoke with me in August 2013 about doing an interview for ArtSlant magazine. What started as a short conversation turned into an extended dialogue over the next few months that covered the current state of painting, film, and theater, the 2014 Whitney Biennial, and a glimpse into Kimler's unique education as an artist. Kimler is outspoken, often attacking what he views as the neo-conceptual academy of the artworld, advocating artistic independence and self-reliance in painters. This stance has earned him the nickname "The Shark," for his biting commentary. I think this is an appropriate nickname; Like a shark, Kimler is constantly moving and developing as a painter. If he didn't, he would probably die.
Wesley Kimler, Panorama; Courtesy Jim Forni's Octane Rich Media crew, Sam Rolfes, and the artist
Bradley Rubenstein: I first encountered your work in the late eighties. I remember a painting of yours called Hunters that was quite memorable. It had the impact of something iconic, like an Egyptian stele or a Barnett Newman piece. The work that you have done in the last several decades has continued to have that effect, in my opinion, and I have enjoyed following along on your trip through painting. Let’s go back, though, for a minute and fill in some of your history. You live and work in Chicago. Where were you before then?
Wesley Kimler: Alright, well, I left home when I was fourteen years old. I grew up in the old South of Market area of San Francisco, living in derelict single-room-occupancy hotels. At one point or another, I lived in them all. Desolation Row. It was pretty wild, I guess. For a time I had a room in this raw, falling-down wreck of a hotel, The Harrison. Now, The Harrison—so named because it was located at 5th and Harrison—had survived the San Francisco 1905 earthquake, but it had sunk down—half of it had anyway—so everything was slanted on an angle. It was a big hotel, wide hallways—there was an ugliness to it. But The Harrison Hotel had one great thing: an artist in residence! Doucher The Shit Spreader. I never met him personally, but oh, did I come to know and admire his work. Doucher worked exclusively in the medium of human excrement—I assume his own excrement—and when he struck, there was a brilliance to it. So large were his moves, and all-encompassing was his art, there was simply no way to negotiate past his work without being touched by it, be it a hallway, stairwell—he could do it all! And always signed "Doucher the Shit Spreader." The manager of the place posted up warning posters: "Doucher I will find you!" Whatever. I don’t think so. Whoever this Doucher was, he was clearly a master shit spreader. The artist’s last piece I happened to witness was a hallway installation—the passage leading to the manager's apartment—painted loosely with a thin crap glaze, culminating in a heavily impastoed shit door…simply stunning. Unfortunately, I moved shortly after that and never knew whether he went on, got caught, changed mediums….I guess I'm lucky the story ends for me on such a high note.
I didn't go to high school—I was a street kid, in other words—but what I made myself do was take music lessons during that time as I was growing up. I studied baroque flute with the idea that I could [laughs] be a classical musician. As I grew a little older, in my late teens and early twenties, I was hanging around with a lot of pretty well-known jazz musicians—some really great jazz musicians, like Joe Henderson and Woody Shaw (the great hard bop trumpet player who was a mainstay with Art Blakey for many years) and the whole crowd of the Both And Jazz Club at Divisadero Street in San Francisco, which is where I grew up. I saw how hard their lives were, so I decided to become a painter. It looked more comfortable. It seemed like it wasn't as harsh as making art in a nightclub, with all the heroin and broken lives and so forth. Of course, it's no different, but I thought it would be.
So I switched to painting and worked on my own for a couple years. When I was twenty, I ended my childhood to work for an importer in Afghanistan for a couple of years. I was buying tribal carpets and kilims and Turkoman silver and the like—also lapis and some turquoise from Iran. When I returned from overseas, I decided I was going to paint seriously. I did it for a little while and then moved down to Austin, Texas, where I did my first year of formal study at a little art school at the Laguna Gloria Museum. I painted still lifes, seascapes, and portraiture with a woman who had gone to Pratt. She had a private art school on the side, but she taught at Laguna Gloria for all her little old lady friends, and me. I learned the basics of oil painting from her.
My next stop in art education was at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. The students and teachers there wanted to know where I learned to paint the way I painted. I explained that it was with the little old ladies, painting their nieces and nephews and grandkids. These little old ladies, unlike your typical art school kid, know how to do something; they were there to accomplish something that took actual skill.
So for two years I did well there and was an influential student, I think. But after two years, I felt like I was done. So I moved out to the West Coast and started practicing—started painting. It's the same throughout history: what good painter hasn't been self-taught? You study, you learn, but with painting, unlike being a musician, for example, there's a self-taught element. That's what makes the induced painters individual; you get a certain amount of knowledge and understanding, and then you go and do something with it that's your own—particularly from the twentieth century on.
So I would say that, really, I did three years of formal training. I didn't get a degree, but my education came in fits and starts; I'm still involved in "the art education of Wesley Kimler," learning how to become a better painter. I'm learning as much about it today as I was learning twenty years ago.
As I developed through the years, I spent a lot of time looking at the people I like—painters who have been cast under the label of Abstract Expressionism. De Kooning was a huge influence, although I really like Joan Mitchell and some of the West Coast painters from that era, like David Park, Joan Brown, and Elmer Bischoff to a lesser extent. Also Richard Diebenkorn, of course.
I looked at all of that, but I also really liked the London school of painters: Kossoff, first and foremost, not Auerbach. Also Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, but Bacon really is kinda like a poor man's de Kooning. He tried to illustrate what de Kooning was able to demonstrate with gesture and plastic invention. I'm more interested in de Kooning's level of virtuosity than the designed terror and horror of Francis Bacon.
Meanwhile, after leaving art school, I went back to San Francisco, and I lived and worked in a warehouse. I did not try to show, unlike today, where people try to show while they're still students. Back then you got to be in a museum show when you'd really earned the right to be there; it wasn't used as a promotional device like it is today. So during this time, I practiced for five years. I thought I had to kinda get good first, and I still feel that way. A lot of people seem to think I'm an egomaniacal type, but I doubt it. I think I'm pretty humble in the sense of who I am and how critical I am about my own work. I'm just always trying to improve. I'm seeking improvement, not perfection, as a painter. It's an ongoing journey, it's a game, and as Matt Beckman said "it's a very good game."
Wesley Kimler, Drawing wall; Courtesy Jim Forni's Octane Rich Media crew, Sam Rolfes, and the artist
BR: One thing has remained a constant for you—the paint. It seems inherent to your work, which, on many levels deals with power and a certain approach to masculinity. I’m reminded of a scene in the movie Fight Club where the Ed Norton character is talking to the Brad Pitt character in the subway. They are looking at a cologne ad, and Pitt says that it is just surface, an advertisement for something that doesn’t exist, and that the Ed Norton character represents the brutality of masculinity buried underneath the surface. Your works, despite being images, pictures, seem to try to go below the appearance of things. You're getting in the ring, so to speak, art historically, when you paint. How far off am I here?
WK: You're not far off at all. The thing for me is the black-and-white drawings. With the chiaroscuro and the starkness of black and white, I'm able to get the psychological resonance that I want. Going back into my life a little bit, where the black-and-white drawings come from…I worked for a while as a messenger. This was, of course, in San Francisco. I rode a one-speed, heavy bike with a basket on the front. It was grueling work at $50 a week—awful. I would go in and deliver things between these printing houses, and at the time there was a lot of chiaroscuro, black-and-white kind of work in advertising, so I saw that often. I always thought, "If only I could work in one of these places, I would be so happy." To survive psychologically in my life—which was pretty hard at the time, living in a $6-a-week hotel room and doing this messenger job all day long—I started to see everything in the world in black and white, without color. I spent weeks refusing to see color. I retreated into my imagination, never to return. Let's face it, it's more challenging to work with color; what comes so easily with black and white is not so easy when chroma enters the picture.
BR: There is a great story about de Kooning running into Pollock after his “black and white” show where he said something like, “Great show, but could you do that in color?"
WK: Beauty and color must resonate psychologically to work. It's how painting has been, what it is—Géricault, Delacroix, and so on. The color had an emotional sensibility and resonated psychological drama. But after, say, the Fauves, a lot of that sensibility got lost in the formalism of the twentieth century, in the deconstruction, but a lot was gained, also. That color in a painting should have drama wasn’t the issue. The issue was whether it should be psychological or formal. The Fauves questioned that hierarchy, that sensibility, and a lot of Modernism continued in that direction-free painting from depiction, unhinged. De Kooning is an excellent example of the cognitive dissonance I’m referring to.
So where we are at now is the emotive quality of contemporary painting, of abstraction, becoming random—a mere formality at this point. I disagree. I always freight the color up in my paintings to a certain psychological state, which can make them more difficult to paint. It's a conflation of making a painting and painting a picture. If a painting has beautiful color and looks great but doesn't feel right, it's got to go back under the knife. So no, you're not far off. They are completely psychological, they are emotional, they are emotionally specific, and they are also dumb, physical, inimitable objects. They are survivors that have endured my torture chamber of a process—ha!—existing in some kind of conflicted gestalt—complicated, a concrete thinglyness, carrying enough existential traction to well up and dwell convincingly in reality. All my paintings are rafts of the Medusa! We cannot return! I think it was Joe Goode who once said, "I respect my heroes too much to imitate them." You see a lot of, like, eighth-generation Ab Ex out there at the moment—it's very popular—and the problem, for me at least, is it is only that, without claiming any new territory. It doesn’t seem terribly ambitious. Though it does seem to sell well in the whole art-as-investment scenario.
BR: The most recent paintings I have seen still have the figure as the starting point—a kind of cipher figure in a military uniform. It is obviously a reference for the battle that takes place with the paint, but do these pictures have any political reference?
WK: Yes, obliquely they do. If you look at the paintings, figuration happens in a lot of different ways in the work: some of the figures are anonymous, shadowy, people taken from those I know, know of, or have imagined; some of them are really abstract, paint people that kind of come out of the gesture of the paint; and others are quasi-realist, pretty tight. I can paint in a lot of different ways, and I do that when I make my work. It's an argument that engages me and ultimately defines what I do. When it comes to painting, I am non-ideological; I’ll try anything. I’m not interested in arriving at some formal conclusion as a visual artist, as I am not wanting to confuse originality with eccentricity. I believe in working in the grand manner—in letting who I am find me.
Often the figures in my paintings are very specific people. This is the case when you see an almost photographic image. In recent works, they are from the Pacific campaign in World War II. I thought the Pacific Theater was kind of our Iliad. I painted pictures of war because I wanted to make works with some weight. I also wanted to make paintings that said they were about war and were about war. These aren’t paintings like Luc Tuymans's concentration camp, where he painted an anonymous basement and then decided to call it Concentration Camp—"Oh, well now it’s about WWII." My paintings don’t require a title; they make no specious claims. They are not abstracted illustration of spoken language. There are specific references, geographical references: the hills and the blobs are usually taken from the island of Peleliu. There are specific people, specific battles. I don’t have to name this or that for you to know what it’s about. I want to cut the art talk and make paintings about war, so hopefully these paintings speak for themselves.
Wesley Kimler, Peleliu,Oil on canvas, 108 x 324 inches; Courtesy Jim Forni's Octane Rich Media crew, Sam Rolfes, and the artist
Additionally, I wanted the paintings to be reactionary, in the sense of me reacting against corporate auction houses, painted to be "flipped" abstraction, against the toweringly vapid stupidity that you see taking place out there with the university art-department-driven, de-skilled painting crew. Of course they’re also metaphorical in that they’re about me, my struggle, and how I approach painting in a very war-like fashion. So yes to all that.
But probably the next time I paint, I might make some paintings about Afghanistan, which would make them more explicitly contemporary. The contemporary aspect to that narrative is how low we’ve sunk at this point. During WWII, and right after that in the 1950s, American painting and culture really hit a high watermark. Artists and critics set the agenda! Not some hedge-fund clown, dumb as the day is long, with a wad of stupid money, buying to flip in a manipulated market.
Let's talk more about painting—where I think painting is at, at least in my studio...When you look at contemporary architecture, when you look at contemporary literature, when you look at contemporary design, you really see their practitioners taking High Modernism—the quest for essential form through science and technology that was prevalent in the twentieth century—and running with it. I mean look at Gehry, or look at someone like Jeanne Gang, or any number of people. The real deconstruction happened after color's role was contested in the early- and mid-twentieth century with analytical, synthetic Cubism—and then there was Abstract Expressionism. There you have the deconstruction and the recapitulation of what painting could mean. But in a way, that language was laid out there, and to my thinking, never spoken.
As the advent of Pop Art came along with popular culture, art became very popular, institutionalized, and fundamentally changed to adhere to the academic footprint—a "taught career," an "art beginning," with Marcel Duchamp installed as the institutional role model. What "art practice" should be recently morphed into "social practice," all supplanting studio practice. We now have more of a desk-job, project-managerial model being pushed: “Critical Theory Concerning Social Injustice.” Is there anything about this that wouldn’t have Joe Stalin peeing his pants in delight? Welcome to the aesthetic gulag. It's so venal it's actually hilarious to watch. The only thing worse is when these same idiots decide they are going to tell us what "matters" in contemporary painting. The Painter Painter exhibition at The Walker last year, for instance—I quote Matthew Collings: “Fascinating spectacle of naive narcissists staging hostile assaults on something they clearly don’t have the faintest clue about, but in relation to which they have been granted positions of great authority.”
So to me, my painting is not unlike looking at a piece of contemporary design or contemporary architecture: taking the language of High Modernism, taking all that was laid out, and then taking that language, those numbers, letters, symbols, and signifiers, and firing them up. Making a living, humanist painting that employs those conceits to bring painting into today as "the enemy of the people," there to shatter their preconceptions as to who they are and what painting is. I don’t see the canvas as an arena—it's more like a war zone where a lot of stuff goes down, both good and bad. It can get kind of intense at times. One person, a brush, and some canvas. It is what it is—simple, fierce, and hard to do well.
I guess my way of thinking, it’s pretty old school, but considering what’s out there right now, it’s also oddly enough kinda radical. I’m not alone. There is some serious painting and thinking about painting being accomplished by some fairly radical inimitable individuals—in spite of and in the midst of, the institutionally driven middlebrow dystopia we inhabit. I paint in a way that feels important to me. My ideation is self-generated; my paintings are arguments both internal and external, having to do with painting, with life. The biggest disagreements I have are with myself; it's the crux of how I am creative. I’m a visual artist working in a time of visual illiteracy, looking at the best, most challenging stuff, trying to extend it in my own work on my own terms, with intellect, intuition, and the reality of my hands pushing oil paint around on a canvas. Really coming to understand how color can work, what the language of sheer plastic invention can look like and mean, or not mean. Camped out in front of one messy painting after another as a way of life, living like a savage, working in a language beyond words. As Wittgenstein once said, what we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence. That, then, is painting, at least around here it is.
ArtSlant would like to thank Wesley Kimler for his assistance in making this interview possible.