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AoTW: Jessica Keiser

Self Portrait

This week’s AoTW is Jessica Keiser.  I conducted an interview with her a couple of years ago for a seminar.  The article here explores not only her work but the impact that the education system can have upon an artist’s development–both good and bad.

Introduction

            Jessica Keiser’s work, by her own admission, represents a modality that is largely absent from the contemporary art scene and, according to some historians, has been out of vogue amongst the elite critical cabal for nearly a century or more.  As one historian states: 

It simply won’t do to ignore a whole generation of progress towards the limits of abstraction, to deny surrealism, cubism, Klee, Kandinsky, Picasso, Francis Bacon…It takes courage, however, to face up to one’s own time, more courage than is needed to beat the baby drum of reactionism,” (Pettersson, 1999, p.22-23). 

Keiser’s work is immersed in the tradition of great figurative and naturalist painters who are interested in simply expressing the human figure as it is.  Devoid of irony, issues of social justice, or any of the other post-modern hallmarks, Keiser’s work instead is about skill and material, light and dark, color and line. 

Does this in some way devaluate her work or immediately deliver it to those outer recesses of the art world commonly reserved for those intrepid souls who defy the postmodern call?  That is for the viewer to decide.  What is clear from the interview is that Keiser struggles with these issues and more as she continues to make progress within the graduate art program. 

What were your early art-related influences?  What art experiences did you have in the K-12 school years?

            Much of Keiser’s early experience with art, in the broadest sense of the word, was rather limited.  Her parents were not particularly interested in art as a subject for specific scrutiny and beyond the typical range of decorative art found within the average middle class home, Keiser’s exposure to art was limited to what was available at school.  Despite her general lack of exposure to art, she remembers that the art class was the only class in which she felt comfortable due to her ability to succeed there while in other classes she sometimes struggled to achieve success.

            While in school, she remembers being exposed mainly to the artists associated with the Impressionist movement.  Paintings of Renoir, Monet, Pissaro, and others maintained such a visual hegemony that most of her early paintings reflect the Impressionist style—a style which she now vigorously dislikes.

            Another sizable influence, according to Keiser, was following what her fellow students in class were interested in creating.  As the other students drew certain subject matter, she would pick up on their efforts and draw similar things; or, conversely, students would be influenced by how she drew.  Much of the interaction, to some degree fueled cumulative development amongst her and her peers.  This, coupled with peer and adult reinforcement throughout her early years contributed, in some measure, to the development of her drawing skills to the above average level.

            In addition to the social contributions that helped the improvement of her artistic abilities, Keiser cites illustrations from books as a sizable influence that furthered her development.  She would check out numerous books from the school library and look at the illustrations, often copying those that she found of interest.  Books, and other material and psychological items that can be found within the conceptual framework of Vygotsky’s cultural tool bag, so to speak, assisted Keiser’s development well throughout her primary education (Woolfolk, 2007, p.41).

            Despite her above average artistic accomplishments in elementary school, high school proved to be largely infertile due to a desire to graduate early.  In order to accomplish this goal, she had to sacrifice art class as it was not a component of the early graduation program.  Despite her lack of exposure to art, at least within the context of a formal school setting, art and her artistic identity continued to play a role in her life, if only at times in a subliminal manner.

            Overall, it appears that Keiser’s art experience within elementary school was not particularly atypical and mimics the experience of countless others who have progressed through the public education system.  She did not identify a particular teacher who could lay claim as the progenitor of her current status as artist; nor could she mark a significant epiphanic-like experience that was a catalyst for the subsequent crystallization of her artistic identity. 

 

When did you first become serious about art?  When did you first identify yourself as an artist?

            Concerning artistic identity, Keiser states that there was not a particular moment or timeframe that she could identify that solidified the idea that she was an artist.  Art and art-making were always undercurrents in her life.

            After taking some time off after graduating high school, Keiser returned to art by enrolling in a small university.  Initially, she pursued a degree in fine arts but quickly became frustrated with the art program.  She found the program to be “boring” and “uninteresting;” further, students’ artwork was often a catalyst for what she deemed “bad psychoanalysis,” (J. Keiser, personal communication, May 1, 2008). 

Her frustration became so intense that she switched programs and became a philosophy major and, ultimately, obtained a degree in this subject demonstrating, once more, that the classroom can have a significant impact on a person’s life choices. 

            After graduating from college she still had a desire to pursue art and actively sought out artists who she believed held sympathetic approaches.  This search also helped her to solidify her own ideas about art and discover what artistic concerns held some merit in her emerging perspective.  She discovered that she was drawn to figurative works and, specifically, the works of those within the Realism and Naturalism schools.  Despite the abundance of historical examples of Naturalistic paintings, Keiser had considerable trouble finding contemporary artists within the genre.  Further research revealed the Florence Academy of Art in Italy and deciding that this was what she needed to pursue, she went there to study art for three years.

            Although Keiser does not identify a particular moment or experience in which she first identified herself as an artist, it was clear from the interview that her experience in Florence was extremely significant for her artistic identity and the time spent there contributed to the seriousness with which she took art.  Much of the resultant material covered within the interview hinged around the ideas and methodologies that would have been promoted within the academy—specifically the contrast between what she deemed the “American approach” to art versus the “Academy approach.”

            Some of the differences between the two approaches are summarized nicely by Keiser: 

It [Florence Academy] was aesthetically incredible.  My familiarity with art classes in America was just…I think of metal, the smell of turpentine, fluorescent lights, stuff like that.  In Italy, it was a big old palette, that traditional one.  And we had natural light.  I think they [the Italian studios] were just more organic. (J. Keiser, personal communication, May 9, 2008)

 I imagine a way to summarize this contrast by using contemporary artists as examples would be to juxtapose the works of sculptor Richard Serra, whose massive works in steel and metal epitomize American industry, alongside the works of the Norwegian artist, Odd Nerdrum, whose Rembrandtian palette and naturalistic figures hearken back to the 1600’s.

            Despite the significance of her Italian experience and her current efforts as a graduate student within the fine arts program, as the interview progressed, Keiser’s artistic identity became less solid when she stated that she, “[…] could and maybe should do other things,” (J. Keiser, personal communication, May 1, 2008).  It is interesting and unusual to witness someone who has devoted a sizable portion of their time and effort to their artistic development make such a statement.  It is almost paradoxical to consider that she has been willing to submit herself to the rigors that she has during her artistic development and then so passively consider trading them all in for another, as of now, largely undetermined role in life—although she thinks that she might like to start a family.

         Keiser’s artistic identity has remained somewhat fluid throughout her development and it appears that this fluidity will remain a factor as she continues to grow not only as an artist but also, simply, as a human being.  The tendency to categorization, self-imposed or otherwise, is, I believe, a natural impulse.  Those who, for reasons indiscernible to us, make moves to step outside of the role in which we conceive them to operate, especially after so much investment in time and effort, risk scrutiny that is largely unjustified when one stops to consider the complexity of the human experience which is, by nature, dynamic and fundamentally beyond categorization. 

How does your art-making and art-thinking fit in with today’s contemporary art scene?

            It was very challenging for Keiser to answer this question as she feels that her artwork does not necessarily fit within the genre of contemporary art.  Generally speaking, it is difficult to find strictly Naturalistic painters within the confines of what is commonly considered the “it” contemporary art scene. 

The most successful or popular of Figurative Naturalists even after years of struggle often fail to find acclaim and recognition despite their best efforts.  Naturalistic painters often risk being ostracized for what many critics identify as a tacit or deliberate rejection of everything that the Modernists contributed over the past century (Pettersson, 1999, p. 42).  It is almost as if the painters who subscribe to this modality are considered adherents to the relics of a past age, one that would be foolish to return to considering the advances that have been made.  Perhaps some consider a Naturalist painter somewhat akin to a contemporary scientist who still subscribes to Ptolemaic principles. 

Despite all of the baggage Keiser had to consider while answering this question she, after a moment or two of contemplation, answered, “[my art] is contemporary because I’m contemporary,” (J. Keiser, personal communication, May 1, 2008).  She further qualified her answer by saying that, “my art reflects my experience and if it doesn’t reflect contemporary visual culture, it’s because my experiences haven’t,” (J. Keiser, personal communication, May 1, 2008).

After further conversation, Keiser’s struggle with the aforementioned issues became more apparent and the divergence between her personal ideas regarding her work and the difficult task of reconciling them with the conceptual requirements of the University’s art program became more apparent.  What emerged were two very different answers to the question of how her art fits in with contemporary culture.

The first answer is seemingly in line with the fundamental structure of most artists’ statements in that it presents a highly conceptual philosophic component to her work.  Beginning with the idea of the individual, in the humanistic sense, Keiser presents the concept that the post-modern ethos rejects the idea of the individual within portraiture often in favor of, or in service to, a veneer of irony. 

Further, her work explores the idea that although it is philosophically impossible to access the “Other” in reference to the individual portrayed in the portrait, the viewer inevitably attempts to do so either through interpretation or perhaps through projecting a component of their “Self” onto the image.  Either way, Keiser states, the viewer is dealing with falsehoods that cannot be circumvented.  The portraits highlight that much like the nature of our daily interactions with people, the interior lives of the people that the portraits represent will forever be inaccessible and fundamentally mysterious.  However, the viewer still desires access to the individual portrayed and will inevitably attempt to gain access despite the impossibility of achievement.

The natural longing to identify and associate with the human figure in visual imagery is touched upon by the contemporary figurative artist, Odd Nerdrum.  In his estimation, modern art has often favored expediency when it comes to capturing the human image via the photograph or other mechanical methods and also through the utilization of abstraction.  In essence, this type of reproduction of the human form inherently diminishes the human touch—and thus, the individual behind the mark.  The contemporary painter’s ability to portray the inner self through classical means via the human touch and through the immediacy of paint on canvas has suffered in that modern art has succumbed to a pervasive and detrimental reliance upon rational thinking—a byproduct, in Nerdrum’s estimation, of modern society’s largely misplaced elevation of rational science to a higher than deserved level.  Another artist from a different age, Caspar David Friedrich, posited a similar caution: “[…] beware sinful ratiocination, for it kills the heart, and when heart and mind have died in a man, there art cannot dwell,” (Hofman, 2005, p.269).

Within this rationalistic framework, it becomes acceptable to sacrifice the human touch when reproducing the human form as such a simplified representation is perfectly coherent within the ethos.  As such, the subtlety and sublimity of expression that would otherwise be obtained by a painter observing from nature and capturing natural forms is lost within the mechanical or abstractive process.  In other words, according to Nerdrum, the individual human component becomes suppressed in service to this “rational foolishness,” (Pettersson, 1999, p.24).  Nerdrum states: 

I believe I have the diagnosis: It was the tremendous development of rational science and finally its total conquest of the human mind in our century.  Few of them [members of modern society] realized that the age of technology is a substitute world.  All genuine forms of art have suffered under the rational way of thinking of this new age.  […]  In the blinded state man finds himself in today I still believe in the future potential of visual art—for the wondrous and contradictory thoughts and movements of this world provide for other worlds than the one of rational foolishness, (Pettersson, 1999, p.24). 

 Although Nerdrum’s statements are more vitriolic than Keiser’s, it appears that both of them are trying to find a validated place for their artwork within a contemporary art world that is often very quick to dismiss efforts such as theirs.

With a limited palette, some brushes, a well lit subject, and years of intensive study, she finds satisfaction in the accomplishment of rendering form in a manner that suggests reality.  It can be said that her work is about rendering skill and the tradition of figurative painting.  Issues of methodology and material are important for her as well.  Obtaining accurate local color and the responsiveness of the canvas are two issues that, for her, require more intensive scrutiny than any conceptual component.  The philosophical components contained within this process are of no interest to her and she further states that she would not even try to conceptualize her work if it was not a requirement of the MFA program.

A contemporary Naturalist painter elucidates some of the concerns that Keiser is considering.  Adrian Gottleib discusses the creative process: 

Creating a realist painting is fairly simple to describe. Conversely, creating a good realist painting is difficult to accomplish…the idea is to bring about a fully unified piece in color.  More so than in drawing, the basis of a successful painting lies in the creation of illusion: the illusion of volume, the illusion of distance and space, the illusion of light, and even the illusion of color itself.  One of the goals of the naturalist painter is to accomplish the most information using a minimal number of brush strokes.  This goal forces the artist to constantly refine brush stroke technique. 

The human eye does not translate images to the brain in the same way that a camera lens imposes an image onto film – the resulting imagery is very different.  There is also, and most importantly, an exchange of energy between the model and the painter that simply cannot take place with a photograph.  Visual images and even perceptions, when combined, help to reflect personal characteristics and gestures necessary to capture the individuality of the unique persona. (Gottlieb, Retrieved May 9, 2008, from Adrian Gottlieb: Naturalist Painter and Portraitist

http://www.adriangottlieb.com/Technique

            It is difficult for Keiser to be in the position that she is for she must either pursue and “attain” a disingenuous philosophical manifesto, of sorts; or, conversely, pursue and vocalize her sincere intent and risk that her work obtain the “kitsch” moniker.  Not an enviable position.  Concerning kitsch, Roger Scruton writes: 

Kitsch reflects our failure not merely to value the human spirit but to perform those sacrificial acts that create it. It is a vivid reminder that the human spirit cannot be taken for granted, that it does not exist in all social conditions, but is an achievement that must be constantly renewed through the demands that we make on others and on ourselves. Nor is kitsch a purely aesthetic disease. Every ceremony, every ritual, every public display of emotion can be kitsched—and inevitably will be kitsched, unless controlled by some severe critical discipline.  (Retrieved May 9, 2008, from City Journal website http://www.city-journal.org/html/9_1_urbanities_kitsch_and_the.html)

 In my opinion, Keiser’s work is not deserving of the kitsch label by any stretch of the imagination.   However, it is valid to consider that despite the artistic freedom that the post-modern art world affords, there are still tacit considerations that, if not adhered to, will compel some to immediately categorize her work as such.  An alternative viewpoint on the nature of kitsch is offered by Nerdrum: 

Kitsch is the opposite of the public space, of the public conversation, of the demand for objectivity and functionality. Kitsch is the intimate space, our selves, our love and our congeniality, our yearnings and our hopes, and our tears, joys and passion. Kitsch comes from the creative person’s private space, and speaks to other private spaces. Kitsch deals therefore with giving intimacy dignity, (Pettersson, 1999, p. 56) 

Although Keiser’s divergent answers reflect the hierarchical ideological concerns which exist within the contemporary art world, it is perhaps difficult to ascertain which of her two answers has more validity in the world of ideas.  Certainly the complexity and the conceptual challenges existent within each answer are no less equal in measure. 

What is art?

            Keiser demonstrated some hesitancy as she formulated an answer for the question: What is art?  Initially, she stated that she did not know what art is and that she would not define art.  However, she did elaborate somewhat.  Keiser stated that she is “[…] suspicious about what art has become recently,” (J. Keiser, personal communication, May 1, 2008).  She feels that within the contemporary art scene, the discussion that occurs about a particular art piece has become elevated above the art.  Further, talking about art has become art. 

            For Keiser, the image takes precedent over the dialogue that a piece creates—the image above all else.  Dialogue, according to Keiser, is secondary and art, in her opinion, should contain merit based solely upon the image because, as she states, “we are not writers and public speakers,” (J. Keiser, personal communication, May 1, 2008).  I want to pause here because I do not want to give the impression that she is any way deprecating of other artists whose work has a strong conceptual component for that is not the case.  Artists who differ from her are respected.

            A similar divergence to that which occurred in the previous section is apparent with Keiser’s answer within this section as well.  She re-emphasized that she feels that her artwork is about the image and that the conceptualization of the ideas behind her work is fundamentally unnecessary. 

What is your teaching philosophy?  How do you being an educator and an artist?  When and where did you first teach art?  For how long?  What problems do you face in your teaching?

            Keiser initially stated that she did not really have a teaching philosophy; but as the interview progressed, clear indications of a guiding force to her teaching emerged.

            When it comes to teaching, her goal is to pass on to her students the information and skill base that she has learned during the course of her own education and experience.  She views drawing as a skill and she emphasized that she is not teaching them how to be artists but she wants to teach them how to draw.  She will not necessarily exclude student consideration of more artistic issues, but she makes it clear that she wants them to focus on skill building.

            Initially, I had the impression that her approach to education incorporated the idea of “banking,” or the tabula rasa concept in which the students were seen as individuals waiting to be “filled” with knowledge and facts.  However, it became clear as the interview progressed that her approach was to foster a more cooperative learning environment in which both teacher and student contributed to the educative process.  Much like a constructivist approach to learning, Keiser wants her students to have the opportunity to create their own understanding and knowledge base about the medium that they are using. Further, she views herself as a facilitator of this process.

            Through the repetition of practice, the students gain knowledge and experience about the medium which will, in turn, result in an improvement in skill.  The nature of habit and repetition is touched upon by John Dewey when he states that, “every experience enacted and undergone modifies the one who acts and undergoes, while this modification affects, whether we wish it or not, the quality of subsequent experiences,” (Cahn, 1997, p.335).  However, Dewey is quick to emphasize that experiences have the potential to be educative or mis-educative, and Keiser stressed that she wanted her students to develop the ability to be productively self-critical as they practice as this will facilitate growth, (Cahn, 1997, p. 330).

            The relationship that exists between Keiser’s role as educator and her role as artist cannot be clearly delineated.  It is clear to her that the two roles are, as is to be expected, not exclusive and the boundaries of each are very fluid, perhaps non-existent. 

            The point at which she could clearly identify how her artistic concerns overlap her educative concerns happened when she identified her experience in Italy as a basis for how her classroom should be structured to reflect what she considers to be the most conducive methodology that will provide the students with a strong drawing foundation.

 The program in Italy was very disciplined in comparison to most American programs and the students there focused upon developing their skills in painting and drawing to a very high degree.  Keiser wants to incorporate some of the highly developed rendering skills within the curriculum in order to foster increased student skill.  This sentiment is echoed by Alfred North Whitehead when he states that the education system needs those “[…] who possess both culture and expert knowledge in some special direction,” (Cahn, 1997, p. 262).  It is assumed that an individual with a high degree of skill or expertise in a particular subject is more qualified to teach that subject.  The answer is that this sometimes helps; but attention to a great degree of preparation concerning issues that exist on the periphery of the core skill set desired to be taught is also required.   

Whatever the case, Keiser has found that her experiences have enriched the execution of her educative obligations and that, in turn, the experiences that her students bring have enriched her artistic growth. This reciprocal enhancement routinely benefits both teacher and student.  The idea that the teacher learns along with the student is certainly not a new one within the philosophy of education spectrum and personal experience repeatedly affirms this.

            Some of the problems that Keiser faces while teaching are common to all who have worked within the education system.  The issues that are specific to her are somewhat unique in that her ideal of what an art class should be was formed in another culture that is fundamentally different from what will be found in most college art classes within America.

            Keiser first taught in a formal capacity while in Florence.  As a third year student, it was expected of her to teach the first year students and she says that this experience has largely formed her conceptual framework of how a classroom should operate. 

She has a desire to teach to the highly demanding and intensive standards that she was expected to demonstrate while in Italy but this is not acceptable within the university art program.  Additionally, the drawing focus under which she developed utilized an approach that used a very narrow range of media while her drawing class is expected to experiment with a much wider range of media.  Consequently, she feels that the students are unnecessarily sacrificing mastery for an unnecessarily broad experience with media. 

Whitehead reinforces this sentiment by emphasizing that one should “[…] not teach too many subjects,” and that whatever is taught should be “[…] taught thoroughly,” (Cahn, 1997, p. 292).  Maintaining the balance between curricular leniency and intensive emphasis of what she considers fundamental is a continuous effort for Keiser.

Although Keiser does struggle with the issue of trying to teach what is, in her opinion, too much material, it is clear that she is learning to adapt to the American art education experience.

It is clear that Keiser wants her students to learn.  Specifically she wants to do her best to provide them the skill set necessary for them to become successful in whatever artistic path that they choose to take.  Although she claims that she is not trying to teach artists but a skill, I beg to differ in that through her example of a disciplined and devoted approach, she is effectively modeling a significant trait of every successful artist. 

Conclusions

I found the interview process to be extremely insightful into the life and work of one particular local artist.  The glimpse into Keiser’s work afforded by this opportunity was very insightful and, of course, if I see her work in the future, I will not be able to look at as I would have before this interview. 

I have to admit that it is unexpected to encounter an MFA student who expresses a desire to actively refrain from conceptualizing the ideas behind her work.  I imagine that in time, the task which has been elusive so far will manifest—possibly in a way inconceivable at this point.  However, what was clear and largely expected, was that Keiser is very sincere about her work and devoted to what she wants to accomplish through the production of her work.  Whether within the context of an MFA answer or not, her work demonstrates a skill and sensitivity to the human form that is seldom matched by many of today’s artists.  The manipulation of color and light creates a remarkable portrayal of natural form.

The examination of kitsch compelled me to end this post with kitsch’s second cousin, cliché.  Thus, a quote: 

The beautiful is in nature, and it is encountered under the most diverse forms of reality. Once it is found it belongs to art, or rather to the artist who discovers it.

                                                                                    -Gustave Courbet

 

Reference List

  • Bajo, T. & Carey, B. (2003). in conversation: Tehching Hsieh. Retrieved, May 8, 2008,     from The Brooklyn Rail
  •             Web Site: http://www.thebrooklynrail.org/arts/sept03/tehchinghsieh.html 
  • Cahn, S. (1997). Classic and contemporary readings in the philosophy of education. 
  • New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc 
  • Hofman, W. (2005). Caspar David Friedrich. New York: Thames & Hudson. 
  • Keiser, J. Personal communication, May 1, 2008. 
  • Petterson, J. (1999). Odd Nerdrum: storyteller and self-revealer. Oslo, Norway:      Aschehoug & Co. 
  • Woolfolk, A. (2007). Educational psychology. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
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