Playing with Paint: The Art of Charles Kessler

Playful and physical. These are two words that repeatedly cross Charles Kessler’s lips when explaining his art. Add to that list colorful, textural, expressive, dramatic and you have the makings of a thirty year retrospective.

“Charles Kessler: 30 Years of Painting” opens to the public on Monday, May 18 at the Village West Gallery in downtown Jersey City. Curated by Robinson Holloway, over 70 paintings spanning from 1979-2009 will be on display.

The entrance of the Village West Gallery with the painting "Indian Forest"

The entrance of the Village West Gallery with the painting “Indian Forest”

Charles Kessler, an important figure in the Jersey City art scene since 1982 and writer of the popular Left Bank Art Blog, joyfully walks throughout the gallery taking time to discuss each piece. Starting with “Indian Forest” (pictured above), a large abstract painting on paper, Kessler reveals his method of working. He begins with painting color and texture onto separate sheets of paper before gluing them together. This technique, similar to a collagist, allows him to try different possibilities before committing to the final arrangement. Some of the edges are torn or folded over as Kessler explains, “I want the paper to come off and out into the viewer’s space.”

“In abstract art work can look random. I wanted it to be experienced. I like the physicality, the sensuality, the here and now. It’s not an illusionary world.”

Many of the works in the show are abstract and all are painted with acrylic paint. Kessler choses to work with acrylic because it dries quickly. He explains that some of his paintings would take forever to dry because the paint is piled on so thick. To achieve this look, a variety of thickeners and additives must be mixed into the paint. Grit, coarse sand-like granules, are used to add texture and shine to paint as seen in “Life in the Studio” (pictured below), a work from 1990. Light dances across the sparkled rough blue circle in the lower left area contrasting with the flat painted colors surrounding it. Texture plays an important role in this piece.

"Life in the Studio", 1990, acrylic and oil on plywood

“Life in the Studio”, 1990, acrylic and oil on plywood

Styrofoam offers a different kind of texture and is used in both a free-standing sculpture as well as a carved painting. “Color Slabs” (pictured in the feature photo) and “1986-C” are both roughly cut shaped pieces of painted styrofoam. “When you make sculpture and try to paint it the sculpture loses its weight because the color appears to exist only on the surface,” says Kessler. “With styrofoam, the color can be seen thru and thru.” Although light in weight, both pieces appear heavy.

Playfulness is apparent is such works as “Puzzle Painting” (pictured below) a 12×12 inch framed painting on wood that can be pulled apart into eight separate pieces. Each piece functioning as a separate painting or together harmoniously as a whole.

Charles Kessler demonstrates how his painting "Puzzle Painting" separates into different pieces

Charles Kessler demonstrates how his painting “Puzzle Painting” separates into different pieces

“1993-F” invites the viewer to not only touch it but to rearrange it. Made up of many wooden plaques, each having their own colorful stroke of paint, only seven fit on top of the custom made wooden shelf. Down below, a small table holds the remaining plaques. Kessler makes his favorite arrangement be known by numbering the back of each.

There is personality in the paint. The way it sits on top of the surface and appears as if it could be peeled off. After the mid 90’s Kessler abandoned the paintbrush for a palette knife. The knife allowed him to pile on his paint colors and allowed each stroke to exist separately.

“Open Book” (pictured below), one of three books in the exhibit, is said by Kessler to be his most difficult painting, taking him six months to complete. The six page over-sized wooden book mounts onto the wall with metal brackets and requires two hands to turn each framed page. As the viewer takes time to move from one page to the next the book slowly reveals itself. This Kessler says is an important goal in his work. “I wanted to create a painting that you experience over time similar to a piece of music. A song does not reveal itself all at once. I wanted to create a drama when turning each panel.” The vibrant colors and textures on each facing page contrast with one another. Two smaller books on chipboard, “1997-Book-E” and “1993-X”, create a similar yet more intimately dramatic experience.

"Open Book", 1998, acrylic on canvas on wood

“Open Book”, 1998, acrylic on canvas on wood

Displayed at the far end of the gallery on two metal doors are numerous small magnet-backed paintings. Meant to be intimate and tangible, Kessler creates them with very few brush strokes. Although smaller in size, these spontaneous colorful works capture the playful expressive beauty of Charles Kessler’s art.

All of the art is for sale. Prices range from $20 to $3,000 and are a suggested donation. All proceeds of the sales will be donated to Art House Productions, the nonprofit organization that is Jersey City’s major pioneering force for the arts.

A view of the Village West Gallery

A view of the Village West Gallery

“Charles Kessler: 30 Years of Painting” will be on view from May 18 – June 5 at the Village West Gallery, 331 Newark Avenue. The opening reception will be held on Monday, May 18 from 6:00-9:00 pm. A closing reception will be held on Friday, June 5 from 6:00-9:00 pm as part of JC Fridays. Admission is free. For more information visit or the JCI Cultural Calendar

Photos by Stephanie Romano

Stephanie Romano

is an artist, mother, teacher, and writer who has made Jersey City her home for the last 15 years. She creates items from recycled vinyl signs and upcycled materials under the name TRAASH.