Kershisnik: Painting from Life,
(Guild Publishing, WI, 2002) with foreword by Jacquelyn Mitchard, essays from Leslie Norris and Mark Magelby, and comments from Suzanne Kershisnik.
Reviewed by Campbell Gray
This is a carefully designed book – a wonderful visual excursion through the work of a unique and thoughtful painter, Brian Kershisnik. It is a picture book of his paintings (130 images represent his paintings and an additional 28 images provide a visual portrait of himself and his procedures). It’s the kind of book I like to have nearby and visible, permitting the images (his images) to catalyze my reflections, at least to the extent that photographs of paintings can.
While it is a larger than quarto-sized picture book, it contains substantial amounts of text. Thus it attempts to occupy that precarious position between coffee table book – something beautiful to browse through with all the accompanying benefits – and critical source – something to be taught by, where others’ ideas about the subject begin the process of unpacking it for the reader. The appearance of the quantity of text provokes inquiry: What are the meanings in these quirky, idiosyncratic images that have sufficient representation for me to get at them, but enough personal symbolism for me always to remain unsure?
On the surface, Kershisnik’s work appears elementary. Usually one or a few almost universalized human figures are laid on a simplified, shallow background or landscape. On a few occasions, the figures are interacting with an animal or an object. On some occasions, the figures are framed by a device such as a window arch, or a painted tabernacle frame that acts as a proscenium, centering attention on, and bringing forward the activity of the figures. These foregrounding strategies are further strengthened by the textured, painterly surface of the background, unconsciously reminding the viewer that the painting is a surface, not a window into an illusory space.
However, while these images appear simple, they are not naive, and this condition is also evident. The draftsmanship in those places where it counts, the sophistication of color and its usefulness in the atmosphere of the work, the production of surface, form and composition, and the highly judicious choices of placement, relationships and viewing angle in the production of the image, clearly signify that there is a maturity of decision making and image production in these works.
It is this dichotomy between each painting’s apparent simplicity and its equally apparent maturity, that, in the search for meaning, causes the viewer to quickly pass by objective questions of history, narrative, documentation, formalism and accuracy, and reach into the engaging realm of unpacking allegories and their meanings. But as that inquiry progresses, one subtly begins to recognize that Kershisnik is aware of and playing with each of those more objective dimensions.
Mother and Child on Wheels
Therefore, the most powerful factor in one’s engagement with these paintings, is the quest for the clues that begin to unravel the universal and personal allegories that are implanted there. So one returns to the text to look for the clues. The book contains a foreword by Jacquelyn Mitchard, a columnist and novelist; a short essay by Leslie Norris, poet-in-residence at BYU; a thematically arranged aesthetic analysis written by Mark Magelby, art historian; and a reflection by Kershisnik’s wife, Suzanne. The largest section of the book, however, is the section entitled “Portfolio” in which, scattered among images of Kershisnik’s paintings, are his personal statements of relationships and values.
Each of these writers’ statements, while containing the character of its author, is eloquent and sensitive. Obviously there is appreciation and warm respect for Kershisnik, his ideas and his work. And his own thoughts, while being simple vignettes are insightful.
Mitchard finds parallels with her own particular family relationships and her own particular psychologies from the discourses of family relationships in the paintings.
The poetics of the paintings challenge Norris to make an excursion into the geographical, architectural and personal contexts of the artist to better know the man behind the discourses behind the images. The essay reads like a journal of reflections in which the passage of time is documented by the movement from outside the contexts to the inside of the studio and the family, and then to return again some months later.
Magelby carefully draws our focus to individual works, using them as types for others. He causes our eyes to inspect the surfaces, to notice the maturity of decisions, to identify the devices that create the work’s values, and in some cases remind us of the traditions and histories that give stature to the work. In addition, by drawing our attention to what we can see of the image, and in particular, the character of the human subjects, Magelby opens possibilities for interpretation.
Suzanne’s frank and unapologetic statement of her relationship with her husband, its demands and distances, and her loving submission to an unusual man, provides the clearest window into his psychology. Her honesty is brilliantly refreshing and adds to the portrait the somewhat insecure but devoted nature of Kershisnik’s relationship with his work, his wife and his world.
From these well worded gifts, it is clear that Kershisnik’s visual allegories explore the more subtle details in the universality of human relationships and conditions. We have more chance to find our own experience in his work because he steers away from the grand themes of relationships and looks deeply at their idiosyncracies – from the particular, we find the principle. We also learn that he is religious, but this fact is stated quietly and with considerable reserve. Near the beginning of Magelby’s essay, he declares Kershisnik to be “a member of the Mormon Church” and within a sentence, connects his basic ideology to the beliefs of that commitment. Then, in the concluding short section of the essay, Magelby makes direct reference to the New Testament’s Paul’s lament over his “thorn in the flesh”, and draws the principle from it as he helps us see Kershisnik’s 1998 painting entitled Thorn and Sparrows. But in the context of the quantity and diversity of text, and the extensiveness of reflection and analysis, these two brief references seem so slight. Perhaps from this condition, we can deduce that the book is produced for a non-religious audience. But this seems unnecessarily timid, even apologetic when the roots and causes of most of Kershisnik’s work are religious in the deepest sense.
For example, the works entitled Sleeping Musicians (or the like) (2000 and 2001, pp.66, 80, 81, 106) are discussed in terms of the exhaustion that overcomes those who give so much of themselves in creative activity. But there is intended to be a direct reference in these works to the Savior’s three closest apostles. When asked to watch and pray while the Savior went further into the Garden to accept the painful entry into the Atonement, these friends slept – from exhaustion, I am sure, but perhaps with ignorance of the moment’s significance, even though Jesus had spoken in principle of what was to happen. Of course, the figures in the painting appear as modern figures of both genders. They have relatively modern instruments and notations beside them, and any overt reference to the early apostles is hidden. But once the metaphor is considered, these paintings jump to life. Because of the modern appearance of these figures they become us, and we become disciples, immediately asking ourselves “What instruments do we lay aside when we ignore the significant spiritual events that are occurring around us?” “Does our potential to minister to others decrease as we allow expression of our weaknesses” “How lonely was the Savior at that critical time, and how lonely are we at important times?”
In another painting entitled Cat Gift (2000, p.26), there is no specific historical religious event being referred to, but a persistent human condition, that has as its most potent form, a religious foundation. We see a male figure attempting to offer a gift to a seated cat, whose gaze in the opposite direction indicates indifference to the attempt. We can speculate about the many times we attempt to offer ourselves to others, and the offer is ignored, or perhaps, more importantly, the equally many times we have ignored the offerings of others to ourselves. But consider the persistent intimate offerings of Deity to us – of the Holy Ghost, of intervention, of comfort, of trial, of intellect, of discernment, of joy, of growth, of love, of mercy, of material blessings, and of the pathway home. No gifts are more persistent, more profound, and more freely given than these, and our indifference and lack of gratitude is often equally persistent. Once this metaphoric foundation is established, this simple little painting, becomes so large and so significant.
So too with much of Kershisnik’s work. What happens to our understanding of the work when the leitmotif of flight is considered in terms of faith and our reception of the Spirit? What happens too, when we consider the leitmotif of the objects being carried or manipulated, as being those aspects of our lives that hold us back from “flying” toward Deity, even when the object might be another person? And what of the idea of dance that recurs? Might that represent the awkward mortal means that are available to express spiritual joy, and at the same time our equally clumsy attempts to negotiate the path home? Perhaps the condition most often addressed in Kershisnik’s paintings is that of the negotiation of human relationships – almost always of marital or familial relationships. Knowing that the primary roots of his paintings are embedded in religious soil our reception of the messages from these paintings are conditioned by our own eternal bases for relationships and the meanings we obtain from the paintings are given that kind of significance.
While the book is a fine object carrying valuable meaning, and while the probability that it was written and designed for a non-LDS or non-religious audience is high, I am of the opinion, that the absence of the discourses associated with these religious roots causes the reader to miss the most valuable meanings and the most significant motivators of the work and the most important insights into Brian Kershisnik’s mind and soul. Nonetheless, it is a book well worth having nearby.
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.