Arts Magazine: Obscure Objects of Desire

From Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program

Obscure Objects of Desire: Paintings by three Minnesota artists evoke mysterious worlds

The three artists featured in the exhibition “Obscure Objects of Desire,” which opens July 13 in the Minnesota Gallery, create paintings that have the rare ability to transport their viewers, to leave them feeling like they have seen something completely new and timeless. John Snyder’s portraits express a sense of innocence and nobility. Scott Brennan evokes primeval settings and human dilemmas, and Polly Kiesel paints metaphorical worlds that resonate with contemporary meaning.

Each artist has considerable talent in representational painting. In their hands, the unreal is rendered with such convincing clarity it comes to life, and the unfamiliar looks, somehow, strikingly familiar. Each artist practices a sort of religion of the intellect. Their work celebrates the boundless nature of the mind in thought, in memory and in dreaming.

Scott Brennan, recipient of a 1990 Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship, imbues his paintings with a complex, almost literary quality. Often featuring the human figure, the works pose a vivid, realistic world that has been subtly subverted. In The Orchestra, a figure sleeps in a tide pool littered with musical instruments. In Death of the Archaeologist, a man at the edge of a rocky shore prepares to cast off a boat, sending a mummified figure and a stag toward a darkening sky. Temptation of the Philosopher pairs a large classical nude that sits prominently in the foreground of a cave with a tiny blue drum set, modeled after Ringo Starr’s.

While the classical beauty of the nude points to the contemplative nature of philosophical thought, the drums symbolize the roguish edge of art, the freedom of rock-and-roll. Formally, the painting plays off the opposition between the tooled and vividly colored drums and the subdued, naturally contoured elements of the setting. Brennan’s wry humor is in evidence, as his rich sense of contextual drama. The worlds of these paintings present an ever-shifting set of associations and complex relationships that exist as on the edge of a dream.

In his paintings, John Synder strives for innocence and immediacy. Though the works are jewellike in their precision and seamlessness, they often feature characters who are disengaged from common experience through their actions or their very natures. Painted in a spare style, these figures represent a state of guilelessness and natural honesty absent from conventional behavior. Essentially human, they exist in a state of sincere grace.

The artist, who was among five artists recently featured at New York’s Whitney Museum at Equitable Center, has always had a strong interest in the expressions of the so-called “naïve” artist. The small toys and other art objects collected in Synder’s studio give some indication of these leaning and of a playful side that emerges most clearly in Snyder’s sculptures-odd robotic machines and childlike figures.

The image of the fool is recurrent in Snyder’s recent works. With warped visages and hooded eyes, they are dressed in curious harlequin garb-in one series wearing hats or cloaks decorated with birds. Like the Shakepearean fool, these jesters seem noble and in possession of elemental knowledge. Snyder does not want the viewer to pity these individuals, but urges us to see through them the naiveté in ourselves and, by doing so, rediscover the sense of awe that has been drained from our modern daily lives.

Polly Kiesel, currently serving a P.S. 1 residency through the Institute of Contemporary Art in New York, focuses on the four elements in her work, in particular the sea. Kiesel says the sea functions as a metaphor for the unseen, an entire world that is essential to human life but is utterly foreign, cut off from human experience.

Her paintings, perhaps the most expressionistic of the three, are vibrantly colored and often represent her scene in cross section, cut away to reveal layers of activity. In a Shell Full of Memories, a nautilus lies far below the crust of the earth, beneath tentacles of magma that reach up toward a rocky shore, and a tiny sailboat floats in a cool green body of water. The secrets of the shell are the secrets of life-of the confluence of water and hot stone, of the natural progress from the chaos of prehistory toward modern humanity.

Kiesel’s gift is her ability to reconcile seemingly disparate elements. Like a dreamer open to the potential connections between elemental archetypes-water, earth, fire,air-Kiesel invents world that have life both as compelling scenes and as metaphors for the broader human condition. Her Fire and Water(four paintings arranged in a square) is about balance. Between the deep reds of the two fire panels, wickedly molten and threatening, and the blue monochromatic panels representing water is the human who is at once conqueror of the creatures of the deep and helpless victim of geologic forces.

Why does the work of these three artists feel so related? Each creates art that is uniquely his own. While the elements of their paintings are vastly different, each plays with the edges of conscious thought, with the same stuff of which our collective dreams are made. Between these artists, the clearest connection is the seemingly endless array of responses their imaginary worlds provoke. In this freedom of association, they find answers to their questions and ours as well as new mysteries waiting to be explored.

Jeffery Kastner is a freelance writer and critic based in Minneapolis.

A special opening reception, free, and open to the public, will be held Thursday, July 12, 1990 from 7 until 9 P.M. in the Minnesota Gallery. The artists will lead a our of the exhibition on Sunday, July 15, 1990 at 3 P.M.

“Obscure Objects of Desire” is presented by the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP), an artists-managed curatorial department of the MIA devoted to the exhibition of work by Minnesota artists.


Citation: Jeffery Kastner, “Obscure Objects of Desire: Paintings by three Minnesota artists evoke mysterious worlds,” Arts 13, No.7 (July 1990): 14-15.