By Bonnie Gangelhoff
From dancing dogs to running lovers, Utah painter Brian Kershisnik creates visions that touch on life today
Painter Brian Kershisnik is reflecting on his daily commute. “My studio is across town, and it takes me eight minutes to walk there,” he says. “Occasionally, I see moving vehicles.” The Utah-based painter isn’t trying to be funny, but he is—at least to a big-city dweller whose commute across urban sprawl takes an hour and involves countless other moving vehicles.
Kershisnik betrays the same engaging, deadpan sense of humor when he describes life in sleepy Kanosh, a no-stoplight hamlet boasting 500 people, one grocery store, a gas station, and a hair salon. The artist has lived here with his wife, Suzanne, and their three children for 15 years now, putting down roots, planting fruit trees, and making art in a historic red-stone building that once was home to a dance hall. The old wood floors in the 1,000-square-foot space are scuffed, marked by thousands of shoes shuffling across its surface. A vintage pressed-tin ceiling overhead adds even more character to the scene.
Some 50 works in progress are scattered about, tacked to every permanent and sliding wall. “Ideas don’t come in nicely spaced intervals,” Kershisnik observes, and thus, many of the paintings await their creator’s future labor.
If there is one focal point amid the array of works underway, it’s the sprawling canvas depicting St. Joseph of Arimathea, which is bound for an exhibition in February 2007 at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City. The painting hints at Kershisnik’s religious beliefs: He is a Mormon, as is his wife; her ancestors helped found the town of Kanosh generations ago and still live here. Around the St. Joseph painting-in-progress, there are dozens of other canvases featuring figures of men, women, babies, and dogs. The creatures dance. They fly. They sleep. And they embrace.
At times, the men and women in Kershisnik’s artistic world seem reminiscent of Modigliani’s gaunt, minimalist forms. Other times, his visual virtuosos seem to reference works from art history such as THE SWING, a nod to Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s 1765 painting of the same title. In the Fragonard piece, the woman flirts with her lover and flings her slipper towards him. Her skirts and legs come into view as she swings exuberantly in the air with what some have called “erotic abandon.” In Kershisnik’s version, however, a more modern take on the same theme, the man is flying through the air on the swing arching toward a bored love interest, a woman sitting stiffly on a nearby bench who seems to be paying no attention to his antics.
When writing about the piece in the book Kershisnik: Painting From Life, art historian Mark Magleby described Kershisnik’s take as more pragmatic than Fragonard’s. “The roles are reversed and modern men and schoolboys will recognize themselves, ineffectually showing off for a girl who is genuinely disgusted by the overblown display,” Magleby says.
In fact, a reoccurring theme in Kershisnik’s work is relationships between men and women: His balance-of-power narratives suggest love lost and found as well as the ups and downs of human unions. Certainly one of his most compelling pieces with this theme, and one the artist considers a key work, is LOVERS RUNNING. In the painting, a couple embraces while racing towards some unknown destination. Kershisnik says he wanted to suggest that love is difficult at today’s pace, but in spite of that, people manage to stay together, keeping their lives intertwined while traveling at breakneck speeds. “Learning to love while you are running is very important. I married a woman who has a life. It’s hard to even get a date with Suzanne,” Kershisnik says, joking about his wife’s busy schedule.
Suzanne Kershisnik, in addition to helping raise the couple’s three children, is the founder of a grass-roots Shakespearean theater company for children. Several times a year she sends out casting calls for various productions that are staged in another part of the historic building where her husband maintains his studio. Kershisnik notes that with a number of shows and teaching assignments, his schedule also tends to be frantic.
LOVERS RUNNING best epitomizes what he set out to accomplish in visually exploring the contemporary theme. “Sometimes I nail it more precisely than others,” he says. “I have tackled the theme of lovers running a number of times. I don’t imagine that I can get any closer than this painting.”
As a youngster it never occurred to Kershisnik that he would someday earn his living as an artist. He grew up in an unconventional fashion because his father, a geologist with an oil company, was frequently transferred to far-flung locales around the world. As a young boy, Kershisnik lived and went to school in Angola, Thailand, Pakistan, and Norway. During the summers, he returned to the United States to visit cousins and extended family in Wyoming. As an expat growing up abroad, he felt equally an outsider in his home country when he visited.
As a child Kershisnik regularly drew pictures to entertain himself. And when it came time for college, he was drawn to the field of architecture, in part because of his love for drawing. His focus on architecture changed, however, after he enrolled in his first art class at Brigham Young University in Provo, UT. It wasn’t long before he switched his major to fine art. He later earned a master’s degree in fine art from the University of Texas in Austin.
His interest in portraying the human figure began early in his art career and has lingered through the years. “I’ve always been more interested in people artistically than in representing specific people in my work,” comments Kershisnik, now in his 40s. His self-described style of painting is “mythological autobiographical.” He explains, “Rather than try and tell you my story in a piece, I just try to grab hold of a hunch and paint not me, but everyman,” adding, “I am interested in the big cosmic story, and I like to paint by playing rather than by engaging in a heady, intellectual way.”
His studio is usually alive with music that spans a wide range of styles, including bossa nova, folk, rock, choral, and Christian rock. Until recently, his black Labrador/mixed-breed dog Mordecai was also his constant companion in the studio. A year ago, while he was away, the dog was shot, possibly by a hunter, Kershisnik believes. His family rushed the wounded Mordecai to the vet, but the dog died. “Mordecai and Iappo [another of Kershisnik’s dogs who disappeared before Mordecai’s death] were always with me. As a place for a dog, the studio is kind of boring. But when they were with me, I always had the feeling they knew more than they were letting on, like witnesses of some sort,” he says.
Fittingly, Kershisnik’s canvases are often peppered with black dogs, and many times they dance, as in STILL LIFE WITH A DANCING DOG. In Kershisnik: Painting From Life, the artist reflects on how the idea to depict a dancing dog came to him. “Once while standing over Iappo and sketching his slumbering, fantastical gesture, I realized that if I tilted him up off the floor (as one can do in a drawing without inconveniencing the model), he appeared to be dancing wildly—an activity he would no doubt have preferred to the dull days in the studio.”
At other times, dogs in a Kershisnik narrative may appear to serve as protectors, as in JEUNE FILLE AVEC LES CHIENS, which portrays two large, regal-looking canines with haloes accompanying a girl as if they were guardian angels at her side.
With the slightest traces of wistfulness in his tone, he adds, “I am currently dogless, but I think I may be ready for another one. No doubt it will be another black Lab mix.” He notes in his typically wry fashion that it will probably “come from the dubious genealogy of the many Kanosh black dogs.”
As this story was going to press, Kershisnik and his family were headed to New York City on a family vacation to visit museums and sample ethnic food, a culinary taste he acquired while living abroad in his formative years. The artist then flies to Wales, where he is teaching a painting workshop. As for the future, he says that things have been moving very quickly in his career and in his family—his son is 16 now, he notes as an aside.
His goal these days is to slow down rather than accelerate. Each year of his career seems better than the last, with more shows and more demand for his paintings, he says. “But I think the most important thing, as far as I am concerned, is that my painting be relevant, and that means that the personal parts of my life that feed my art need some time—my family and friends. I’ve been running hard.” He pauses for a second and brings the discussion about the future back to his small Utah hamlet. “I appreciate living in a place where I can eat fruit from trees I planted,” he begins. “I think I will probably stay right here in Kanosh until I die.”
Kershisnik is represented by Froelick Gallery, Portland, OR; Coda Gallery, New York, NY; Meyer Gallery, Park City, UT; David Ericson Fine Art, Salt Lake City, UT; and Grover/Thurston Gallery, Seattle, WA.
Featured in September 2006