Bradley Rubenstein: I first encountered your work in the late eighties. I remember a painting of yours called Hunters that was quite memorable. It had the impact of something iconic, like an Eqyptian stele or a Barnett Newman piece. The work that you have done in the last several decades has continued to have that effect, in my opinion, and I have enjoyed following along on your trip through painting. Let’s go back, though, for a minute and fill in some of your history. You live and work in Chicago. Where did you study before then?
Wesley Kimler: Alright, well, I left home when I was fourteen years old (and actually if you look on Facebook I posted a bunch of stuff). I grew up in the old South of Market area of San Francisco, living in derelict single-room-occupancy hotels down there.
I didn't go to high school -- I was a street kid, in other words -- but what I made myself do was take music lessons during that time as I was growing up. I studied baroque flute with the idea that I could [laughs] be a classical musician. As I grew a little bit older, in my late teens and early twenties, I was hanging around with a lot of pretty well-known jazz musicians—some really great jazz musicians, like Joe Henderson and Woody Shaw (the great hard bop trumpet player who was a mainstay with Art Blakey for many years) and the whole crowd of the Both And Jazz Club at Divisadero Street in San Francisco, which is where I grew up. I saw how hard their lives were, so i decided to become a painter. It looked more comfortable. It seemed like it wasn't as harsh as making art in a nightclub, with all the heroin and broken lives and so forth. Of course, it's no different, but I thought it would be.
So I switched to painting and worked on my own for a couple years. When I was 20, I ended my childhood to work for an importer in Afghanistan for a couple of years. I was buying tribal carpets and kilims and Turkoman silver and the like—also lapis and some turquoise from Iran. When I returned from overseas, I decided I was going to paint seriously. I did it for a little while and then moved down to Austin, Texas, where I did my first year of formal study at a little art school at the Laguna Gloria Museum. I painted still-lifes, seascapes, and portraiture with a woman who had gone to Pratt. She had a private art school on the side, but she taught at Laguna Gloria for all her little old lady friends, and me. I learned the basics of oil painting from her.
My next stop in art education was at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. The students and teachers there wanted to know where I learned to paint they way I painted. I explained that it was with the little old ladies, painting their nieces and nephews and grandkids. These little old ladies, unlike your typical art school kid, know how to do something; they were there to accomplish something that took actual skill.
So for two years I did well there and was an influential student, I think. But after two years, I felt like I was done. So I moved out to the West Coast and started practicing—started painting. It's like any painter: throughout history, what good painter hasn't been self-taught? You study, you learn, but with painting, unlike being a musician, for example, there's a self-taught element. That's what makes the induced painters individual; you get a certain amount of knowledge and understanding, and then you go and do something with it that's your own—particularly from the twentieth century on.
So I would say that, really, I did three years of formal training. I didn't get a degree, but my education came in fits and starts; I'm still involved in "the art education of Wesley Kimler," learning how to become a better painter. I'm learning as much about it today as I was learning twenty years ago.
As I developed through the years, I spent a lot of time looking at the people I like—painters who have been cast under the label of Abstract Expressionism. De Kooning was a huge influence, although I really like Joan Mitchell and some of the West Coast painters from that era, like David Park, Joan Brown, and Elmer Bischoff to a lesser extent. Also Richard Diebenkorn, of course.
I looked at all of that, but I also really liked the London school of painters: Kossoff, first and foremost, not Auerbach. Also Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, but Bacon really is kinda like a poor man's de Kooning. He tried to illustrate what de Kooning was able to demonstrate with gesture and plastic invention. I'm more interested in de Kooning's level of virtuosity than the designed terror and horror of Francis Bacon.
Meanwhile, after leaving art school, I went back to San Francisco, and I lived and worked in a warehouse. I did not try to show, unlike today, where people try and show while they're still students. Back then you got to be in a museum show when you'd really earned the right to be there; it wasn't used as a promotional device like it is today. So during this time, I practiced for five years. I thought I had to kinda get good first, and I still feel that way. A lot of people seem to think I'm an egomaniacal type, but I doubt it. I think I'm pretty humble in the sense of who I am and how critical I am about my own work. I'm just always trying to improve. I'm seeking improvement, not perfection, as a painter. It's an ongoing journey, it's a game, and as Matt Beckman said "it's a very good game."
BR: One thing has remained a constant for you—the paint. It seems inherent to your work, which, on many levels deals with power and a certain approach to masculinity. I’m reminded of a scene in the movie Fight Club where the Ed Norton character is talking to the Brad Pitt character in the subway. They are looking at a cologne ad, and Pitt says that it is just surface, an advertisement for something that doesn’t exist, and that the Ed Norton character represents the brutality of masculinity buried underneath the surface. Your works, despite being images, pictures, seem to try to go below the appearance of things. You're getting in the ring, so to speak, art-historically, when you paint. How far off am I here?
WK: Well you're not far off at all. The thing for me is the black-and-white drawings. With the chiaroscuro and the starkness of black and white, I'm able to get the psychological resonance that I want. Going back into my life a little bit, where the black-and-white drawings come from…
When I was on the lam as a kid, one of the jobs I had for a while was working as a messenger boy. This was, of course, in the sixties. In San Francisco there were a couple of messenger services. I rode a 1-speed, heavy bike with a basket on the front. It was grueling work—$50 a week—and it was awful work. I would go in and deliver things between these printing houses, and at the time there was a lot of chiaroscuro, black-and-white kind of work in advertising, so I saw that often. I always thought, "God, if only I could work in one of these places, I would be so happy." To survive psychologically in my life—which was pretty hard at the time, living in a $6-a-week hotel room and doing this messenger job all day long—I started to see everything in the world in black and white, without color. I spent weeks refusing to see color. It was my way of escaping from reality, and since that time I've always loved black and white, but it always has had a very personal meaning to me as well.
It’s often more challenging to work with color; what comes so easily with black and white is not so easy with color. Beauty and color must resonate psychologically to work. In a lot of historical painting—Jericho, Delacroix, and so on—the color had an emotional sensibility and resonated. But after, say, the Fauves, a lot of that sensibility got lost in the twentieth century. But a lot was gained, also. At that time, the color in a painting depicted a mood; the Fauves contradicted that sensibility, and a lot of Modernism continued in that direction. De Kooning is an excellent example.
Often the emotive quality of contemporary painting, of abstraction, is neutral and not very specific. The color is there to function primarily just as color. I always yoke the color up in my paintings to certain psychological states, which can make them more difficult to paint. If a painting has beautiful color and looks great but doesn't feel right, it's got to go back under the knife. So no, you're not far off. They are psychological, they are emotional, and they are emotionally specific.
Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.