David Kassan

David Kassan, Echo  Courtesy Gallery Henoch, New York City  A prolific contemporary realist, Brooklyn-based David Kassan combines abstract backgrounds with portraiture and figurative skill in experimental arrangements. His recent exhibition at Gallery Henoch, “Introspections,” comprised of drawings and trompe l’oeil “texture studies” in oil, as well as large figurative paintings, demonstrated his evolving interest in the effects of time on the material world, in particular the spaces of distressed walls. His deliberate contrast between clear, smooth flesh and tattered backgrounds sets up a tension between youth and age that remains to be resolved but is reminiscent of the bittersweet contrast we find in ancient cities such as Paris or Venice, in which countless fleeting generations of young people inhabit crumbling Renaissance buildings that will inevitably outlast them. The textures of his walls are material statements of the ravages of time on space, but not necessarily of meaningful layers of history that might be implicit therein. Only in talking with the artist did it become clear how the backgrounds of certain portrait paintings of young women, including Up Against (64-by-43 inches) and his self-portrait conceived in Portugal, General Strike (30-by-21 inches), were inspired by Robert Rauschenberg and Franz Kline.

Creation of a virtual reality has long been the task and delight of representational painters. Today’s figurative artists, however, may be practicing a form of Mannerism but without cynicism. “Supermannerism” in postmodern architecture was described at length by C. Ray Smith (in his 1977 book of the same name). Smith’s own interior designs sometimes incorporated “superimpositions,” slide projections of classical images within the confines of a small apartment. In one example, the grandeur of the Sistine Chapel expands the walls of a low-ceilinged room, setting up an improbable counterpoint to the reality of banal modern furnishings in an undecorated space—an example of admittedly ironic uses of “instant” iconography.

Perhaps, in today’s youth movement of under-forty realist painters, we see a playful exploration that does not aim to critique the world outside of the picture plane, but rather to exhibit skills and to explore the tensions between contemporary subject and traditional formal rendering, between expectation and perception. Certainly, the concern to show off painterly abilities is at the forefront, but when realist skill depicts an improbable subject, then we look again. Kassan gives us a space, a disjunction, in which to contemplate, rather than merely admire. His newest interest, motion through space, appears in one of his most recent works. Uncharacteristic of his large and mid-range portraits, Echo (2008, 35-by-25 inches) demonstrates Kassan’s interest not only in time and its effects upon the material world, but in depicting perceptible motion. By blurring the fingers and left side of the face of a young woman, as in a slow-shuttered photograph, Kassan gives an effect of movement that at first suggests the achievements of the Italian Futurists. Good examples are the striding silver-gilt sculpture of Boccioni and the well-known Balla painting, Dynamism of a Dog on Leash (1912), which depicts (from a tall person’s perspective) the multiple movements of the scurrying little dog’s feet, its fluffy tail and hairy flapping ears, its doggy forward enthusiasm, the swinging leash-chain limning superimposed parabolic forms in space next to the owner’s moving feet—all simultaneously perceivable as in a photographic multiple exposure. And yet, to look again, Kassan’s painting Echo is not exactly doing these sorts of things. The young woman, painted in his characteristic glowing realistic style (good health exudes from the flesh he paints), seems to be emerging from one plastic dimension into another, dragging its plasma toward the surface, slowing the effect of kinesis to make the viscosity of space penetrated visible. She, the anonymous subject, suggests that extension in space is a matter of layering many space-time planes over one another like glazes of semi-translucent lacquers. That her dark eyes look straight at the viewer, creating an engagement with her mysterious movement, is an enchanting element that is offered as reality due to the representational skill. Is she the ancient goddess named Echo? Or is this auditory allusion a metaphor for the echoing smears of her person moving in time-space?

Another slight departure from his paintings to date is a small portrait of his aunt, seen from a slightly elevated angle. Our gaze is directed down at her careworn face, which seems to look inward or contemplate the space beyond her clasped hands with splayed fingernails, the finest crow’s-feet around the downcast eyes. The closer one gets to the surface, the more refined the details reveal themselves to be—which is an experience contrary to the usual one of looking closely into the surface of painting thick with paint (say, a Turner or a Monet haystack or a Seurat act of Pointillism), in which we perceive the figure dissolving into brushstrokes. Kassan prefers smooth surfaces for his figures, slightly raised and roughened surfaces for the backgrounds.

Kassan’s painting technique is the same as for his meticulously rendered drawings in graphite on cream or black and white charcoal on grey paper. Cross-hatching delicate lines to create volume in his impeccable drawings—whether of his own eye, a friend’s nose, his child’s face, a model’s collarbone beneath the flesh—is a technique carried into the application of pigments in various colors as he perceives them in the light reflected by the model. This results in a realistic impression of blood and nerves alive beneath the skin; delicate blues and greens come toward the viewer, whose eye spontaneously mixes the glazed colors into the illusion of a living surface.

For this young, well-traveled, well-educated and persistent painter, there are many conscious influences, from Leonardo to his mentors from college and the Art Students League. Like Picasso and de Kooning before him, Kassan has a mastery of draughtsmanship and design. His ongoing quest to develop his vision beyond the very precise depictions of people and surfaces is a conscious daily effort. With his acquired skills so readily evident now, it will be a pleasure to see in what directions his personal quest will take him and how that growth and expansion will manifest in the work. Since 1999, when he graduated from Syracuse University College of Visual and Performing Arts, David Kassan has steadily painted, shown and sold his work to a variety of collectors, including the Seven Bridges Foundation of Greenwich, Connecticut, Peter Pennoyer Architects and many private collections as far afield as Mumbai, Lisbon, Paris, the Bahamas, Passaic and Manhattan. “Introspections” ran from March 12 through April 4, 2009, at Gallery Henoch, 555 West 25th Street, New York, New York 10001. Telephone (917) 305-0003. On the web at www.galleryhenoch.com

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2009, Volume 26, Number 2