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Brian Keeler Reviews

Ithaca Times- Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Lake Light at the Titus Gallery is Transcendent and Holistic
By Warren Greenwood

Brian Keeler's "Lake Light" exhibition will be at the Titus Gallery until November 30.

I try to make these articles for the Ithaca Times like little works of art. But it would really be something if I could make them as extraordinary as the paintings of Brian Keeler.  If I had his precision, his perfect control. (The writer Anne Lamott likened her mind to an undisciplined puppy.  My mind is like that.)

Brian Keeler is a wonderful painter who works in Upstate New York and Pennsylvania (and Italy, too, sometimes). He currently has a show entitled “Lake Light” at the Titus Gallery on the Commons.

On October 19 I went to the Titus Gallery to chat with Brian about his work.  Matthew Peterson, Susan Booth Titus’s business partner, was on hand, and he joined the conversation.  (Which was fine with me, as Matthew is one of the most engaging conversationalists I’ve ever met.)  It went like this:

Matthew Peterson: [pointing at “Willow Creek Spring”]  I was commenting on a nice painting here by Brian that has a guard rail pretty much down the center of it, and one side has a road and a house and a sign, and the other side has a stream running down it and a woods in the background.  And I had several people come into the gallery and wonder if the guard rail was a dividing line between the human world and the world of nature …

Ithaca Times:  Was it intentional?  Or was it what reality happened to show you?

Brian Keeler:  No, it wasn’t intentional.  But it’s an interesting observation.  I take efforts to get these proportions so they’re not evenly divided … it’s more like a third to two thirds.  I use that consistently in my paintings.

I’d like to make an analogy between painting and music – musical things like rhythms and proportions and cadences and so forth.  There are a couple of musical composers I have an affinity for.

One is Alexander Scriabin … and through his career he had this thing of correlating music to the visual arts.  He had performances with colored lights that would correspond to certain things in music…

And another painter – whose work is nothing like mine, but his ideas are similar – is Kandinsky.  He made a connection between music and the visual arts…

And I like the idea of these corollaries.  I think about them and try to apply them.

MP:  One quick comment:  I didn’t say equally divided.  I just said divided.

BK:  [pointing at “Cayuga Sculler – July Evening”] This one of the scullers has this relationship between the various groups.  I use this triangular pattern a lot.  It has a sort of quasi-mathematical correlation, too.  But it’s intuitive.  It’s not like high school geometry.  It’s more like the geometry of a billiard game.

When I paint, I try to get everything to work right from the beginning.  There’s this aphorism, "to make it a masterpiece at each stage of the painting."

Some of the more rewarding parts are working with these fundamental harmonies and relationships rather than obsessing about making it look exactly like what I’m painting – even though it usually does … [chuckles].

IT:  One thing that struck me about your work is you don’t seem to fit into any known category.  Your work is sort of like Academic Realism – sometimes even like Superrealism – it’s a little like Impressionism – but not really – occasionally you do a Magritte-like Surrealism, and there’s what I referred to at gallery night as that “hopped-up hyper-reality” like Van Gogh’s work – a sort of hyper-awareness.  Of course Van Gogh arrived at that through schizophrenia….

BK:  You liked the fact that it is sort of trumped-up color, exaggerated color, sometimes called “arbitrary color”… like the Fauvists – earlier in my career, people compared me to the Fauvist School in France.

Another important thing is I paint on location a lot – it’s called plein aire – it just means painting outdoors.  There’s something important about being there…

It’s the way the Impressionists painted.  There’s a proto-Impressionist I like a lot – he was one of the first artists to paint out of doors in Italy – Jean Baptiste Camille Corot.  I’ve gone to a lot of the same places that he painted…to paint at the same locations.

MP:  Regarding the exaggerated colors of Brian’s work:  when I look at that … what I see is an attempt – often a successful attempt – to capture the transcendent and holistic aliveness of reality. When you take a photograph – even a sublime photograph – it stops something and kills it.

With the colors in Brian’s paintings – like the long one with the women sculling the racing boats and the setting sun – the exaggerated colors reflect the feeling of the sun on your skin.  When you look at something, you’re not just looking with your eyes, you perceive it with your whole body.  The sun sometimes blinds you … and also it warms you … and that’s part of what you’re looking at – it’s a holistic thing – it’s not just your eyes.

    What appeals to me … is where I see that exaggeration making it more real – because it’s capturing the holistic experience …

IT: That’s great!  And the problem is – it’s beyond words … there are things that can’t be expressed verbally.  I have a young friend who is a filmmaker at USC – I just watched one of his films – and he wrote in an e-mail, that’s why we have art … to express stuff that, well, we can’t put into words…

BK:  I’m honored by your observation … it is a great compliment … to have that impression in a viewer … to have something be more real than what it is.  There was something like that in Dante’s Inferno…where the characters are looking at statues and it was like the ultimate compliment … because you’ve outdone nature [laughs] in this piece of sculpture.  Thank you.

IT:  I read an essay on your work by Brian Benedetti, the director of the Pauly Friedman Art Gallery that I found kind of interesting.  He referred to your “masterful use of draftsmanship.” And that struck me as, Oh, yeah … underneath your painting you draw, as we’d say in the animation industry, like a bat out of Hell.

And Benedetti wrote of your work, “A keen sense of perspective…a dramatic use of space and draftsmanship …” And I thought, that’s a sharp observation.  Because these are dramatic paintings…and the drama comes from you having a perfect grasp of perspective [laughs].

I’m laughing because, as a cartoonist, perspective is something one struggles with throughout one’s entire lifetime.  But your grasp of perspective is so assured that you can use it to achieve drama …

BK:  It’s one of the things the Renaissance painters did, too.  It’s like a tool.  But you don’t have to be constrained by the system – perspective is a mathematical system – but there are examples where they purposely flaunted it – they knew the rules, but they would do weird things – like two perspectives at one time or something like that.

When I have the group in Florence, I take them to the spot where perspective was invented … there’s this kind of hallowed spot … It’s right in Florence, between the cathedral – the Santa Maria della Fiori – and the baptistery.  And Brunelleschi set up his camera obscura and did this drawing on a board or something, and it is supposedly the place where one-point perspective was invented.

IT:  What on earth is a camera obscura?

BRIAN:  A kind of predecessor to the camera.  It was basically a black box with a pinhole in it…and it would refract the image so it could be traced.  And then they would do the drawing and it would have a photographic quality. Vermeer used it to great effect.  Although, some people say, if you’re using photographs it’s not valid or something.

IT:  That’s silly.

BK:  In the hands of an artist like Vermeer or Brunelleschi it becomes a tool, like a pallet knife or anything else.

IT:  Yeah, I think anything you use is valid.  And I’m so glad you mentioned Vermeer.  When we were chatting at gallery night, we were talking about this painting … [indicates “Interior with Pierre”] … and you referenced Vermeer, and I referenced Thomas Hart Benton.  I thought you referenced Vermeer because of the precision of it – one thinks of Vermeer’s paintings as works of incredible precision.

BK:  Yeah  …

IT:  I referenced Benton because it seemed so American to me.  It’s America in 2010 as opposed to America in –

BK: 1930. 

IT:  But I thought we should talk about Vermeer.  Is he…uh…?

BK:  He’s an influence.  But there are only a few paintings that pertain to it.  The inspiration from Vermeer is that it is an interior.  These pillows in the foreground are sort of a technique he would use.  He would often have an Oriental rug draped over a table in the foreground, and that would function as a foreground element to lead the viewer into the space.  So the painting would have these successive spatial elements, and there’d usually be people in the background, musicians or card players, or an artist and model or something…

Brian Keeler’s one-man show, “Lake Light,” will be at the Titus Gallery, 222 the Commons, in Ithaca, until November 30.

Keeler will be giving two portrait demonstrations at the Community School of Music & Arts in Ithaca.  The first will be an alla prima oil portrait painted from a live model on Sunday, November 13 between 7:00 and 9:00 p.m.  The second will be a pastel portrait demonstration on Sunday, November 20 between 7:00 and 9:00 p.m. The fee for each lecture/demonstration is $10.  Please arrive early.  Registration is recommended.  Please call (607) 272-1474.

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