Ken Auster | Size Matters

By Bonnie Gangelhoff; Photos by Michael Darter

California painter Ken Auster on what it means to go big—really big

Two years ago, Ken Auster was on a surfing trip in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, when he met prominent New York artist and surfer Julian Schnabel. Schnabel’s exuberant style, in both his art and life, captured Auster’s imagination. “My friends say I have Julian envy,” he jokes. “After listening to him talk on that trip, I came home, bought rolls of canvas seven feet long, and decided to paint larger.”
Next Auster ordered gallon-size containers of paint from the manufacturer. But then he ran into a stumbling block—he couldn’t get the paint on the mega-canvases fast enough with the brushes he was accustomed to using for his smaller works. That’s when he hit on an idea for taking a truly hands-on approach to his art: He scoured up some latex gloves, plunged his right hand into a paint can, and used his fingers as his brushes. “It’s like finger painting,” Auster says. “I’m taking everything I know about art, but doing what I did as a child.”

The artist’s new oversize landscapes and urbanscapes measure some six by eight feet and are created on an enormous easel in his Laguna Beach studio. Auster says his “big pictures” are more spontaneous and immediate. “They give me a sense of connection with the paint and the canvas without having anything in between,” he explains. “Now my hands are actually touching the canvas, and it’s a thrill.”

It’s a thrill for art patrons, too. Auster believes there is a market for his large works, in particular for corporate collectors who often demand such pieces for their sprawling office walls. “In the past, all that’s been available on that scale are abstract works, not representational works like landscapes and urbanscapes. This gives people another choice,” he says. Diane Nelson, co-owner of SCAPE gallery in Corona del Mar and one of Auster’s representatives, agrees and adds that collectors who are building bigger-than-ever homes also are contributing to the interest in larger artwork. “People relate to the local scenery and are trying to find artwork by emerging and mid-career artists, in addition to famous plein-air painters such as William Wendt and Edgar Payne,” Nelson explains. “They want works by artists who are painting current landscapes that capture the feeling of the area. Ken has brought the subject and style of painting together.”

Featured in February 2008