Jon Kessler’s New, Fast Pace


For the last few years, an exhibition of the work of Jon Kessler has entailed a whirligig installation of cutout and ephemera, with live-feed cameras and monitors that scoped out visitors in a paranoid maze. His current exhibition at Pace Prints focuses on works on paper, a medium which he has only used since 2007. Political threads run throughout—the primary content of the collaged prints is the bald eagle—but the strongest correlation to Kessler’s better known works is the complex, time-sensitive process he uses to develop them. Here, Kessler discusses the difference in process, the financial crash, personal influences and natural history museums:


SARAH STEPHENSON: Your first body of works on paper was exhibited at the Drawing Center in 2007. How has the format changed for you since then?

JON KESSLER: I’m still getting used to how different it is from sculpture, for which I typically work right up to the night before, or even sometimes the day of, the show’s opening. My big installations take weeks. By contrast, I did this body of work last summer and then we did some post-production in the fall.

STEPHENSON: How did you begin working in the medium of prints?

KESSLER: What freed me was that my sculpture started to go off in different directions. When I started to bring mediated images into my sculptures, in around 2004, I started to screw with them: cut into them, paint on them, and manipulate them. That’s what led to the works on paper. I was interested in works on paper having that same anger, energy and power as the sculptures, without going to the opening at Pace and worrying that something was going to be broken when I got there. “The Blue Period” at Art Basel [in 2008] and Kessler Circus at Deitch Projects [in 2009] both had works on paper in or surrounding the installations, and I’ve been trying to integrate them more and more and not just making them a separate body of work. In a show like this, however, the approach is very different. All the works are the same format and same size. I like that you can scrutinize these things. I’m always dependent on an active viewer to look up-close and follow the mechanics to see what’s producing the image; this is a very different experience.   

STEPHENSON: The works are heavy in texture and feel, but to achieve that effect, evidently you’ve had to produce them quite quickly, as the materials dry.

KESSLER: The works on paper are very material-oriented, which is what keeps me interested in the process. The flatter works were done in an almost performative way, where everything was thrown into a soupy mix and I only had a few seconds to work with it. I’m up to my elbows in guck trying to get this thing to emerge quickly. It’s about as close to painting as I’ve come. Granted, they’re fast paintings where I’m putting pigment directly into the water and, although allowing chance to play into it, there is a certain amount of control and I can go back in at the end to manipulate the color. It’s really quite similar to my sculpture practice: I assemble the materials and manipulate and transform them.

STEPHENSON: You’ve used the bald eagle throughout, but to very different effects it appears. LEFT: KESSLER IN THE STUDIO. COURTESY PACE PRINTS

KESSLER: With the eagle, I’m pushing symbols that are very loaded. In most cases, it’s portrayed as a tethered bird caught in a net with his feathers ruffled. The mighty eagle has gone through hard times. That’s probably the most superficial reading. In the reliquary works, those with the heavier wooden frames, the eagle wears a men’s striped business suit; in another work it’s in a dollhouse scenario, where there’s been a killing with a pool of blood and a small figure dragged across the floor. There’s a Wall Street narrative going on here relating to the Madoff scandal, and in particular the French executive’s suicide after he lost everything in Madoff’s scheme. Another aspect I was interested in were the reliquaries made out of recycled plastics; I wanted to have these birds connected materially with plastics, nets, strings and beer cans. The pieces also had to be somewhat calm—the bird caught in a storm drain after a tsunami—to create a congested, controlled chaos with bits of flotsam and jetsam.

STEPHENSON: You’ve used birds in previous works [in the “Birdrunner” series in 1994 and “Hall of Birds” in 1995–1996] but as symbols those birds were always more naïve. These present birds are a lot more menacing.

KESSLER:Yes, but they have also become powerless. Except for a couple of them that still have their dignity, these predators have pretty much been emasculated. The work is definitely more overt than the early work; it’s a lot more political. The show came to me when I went to Vienna on a stop over and I visited the Museum of Natural History there. It’s probably the most insane killing spree I’ve ever seen, room after room of large, oak vitrines filled with every single species, like some kind of death orgy. That mode of presentation has become politically incorrect, so you normally find the animals taken out of their ”cages” and put into some scenic habit for visitors so they’re no longer presented as mere specimens. 

STEPHENSON: How do you situate your works on paper in relation to Rauschenberg’s Canyon (1959), with it’s famous bird wings?

KESSLER: I’m always thinking about Rauschenberg, consciously. He’s such an important artist for me. Even when I made the Birdrunner pieces, applying paint to the taxidermied birds, I knew I was treading on Rauschenberg territory. But those worked through history in different ways. 

STEPHENSON: White House (2009) from this show also resonates with Martha Rosler’s “Bringing the War Home” series. This juxtaposition of images of domesticity—dolls figures, magazines—is threatened by unseen forces above. Were you thinking about Rosler when you inverted the supposedly safe image of the house?

KESSLER: No, but I was thinking about Martha Rosler a lot for the installation, [at PS1, 2005–2006] “The Palace at 4 A.M.” She was the patron saint of that collision of domesticity and warfare. So it has been something that I’ve considered in the past and she’s definitely on my playlist.