Wesley Kimler: 'I Never See Beauty'

I never see beauty. It is foreign to me and if even I could glimpse it, it would only be in recognition of a struggle gone cold, soon to be discarded as I move on. No satisfaction taken: a corpse kicked to the curb. It's about not knowing how to live, thats what painting is, what is performance, and coming with it, a whole lot of heartbreak.
-- Wesley Kimler
Wesley Kimler's Chicago studio

Wesley Kimler, one of the last tough-guy painters, likes his studio chaotic. It's a kind of parallel universe, which suits Kimler fine, since he acknowledges that he has "an inability to live in the real world." Painting furiously, with some of his six exotic birds screeching as he works, Kimler is prone to 48 hours binges and also to re-working "finished" works. Kimler's most recent paintings have themes of war and he sees the creative process as a form of destruction. Still, he is clear about why he does what he does: "I make beautiful things for other people."

I recently interviewed Wesley Kimler and asked him to tell me a few stories, and share some of his opinions about art and artists.

Wesley Kimler: Photo by Amina Dollah Kimler

John Seed Interviews Wesley Kimler

JS: So, tell me about this tough childhood of yours...

WK: I left home at 14: I was on the run. I was looking to get out of a bad situation at home and I just had to get away from where I was. As far as what I was looking for, I suppose I lacked intent -- it was kind of like being shot from gun -- I had run away so many times that when I finally got caught and went in front of a judge he said: "Either you get into some kind of military boarding school or we are going to put you in one of our schools."

 My hero at the time was the character Paul Newman played in Cool Hand Luke, so I said "Yes sir, judge!" went home, found 22 dollars, got on a Greyhound bus and never went back. I grew up in the south of Market area of San Francisco, which at the time was a sizable area of downtown. It was a derelict district full of large dilapidated SRO hotels. I lived in them all at one point or another. I was a street kid.

Wesley Kimler: Photo by Amina Dollah Kimler

JS: How did you get through all this?

WK: One of the things that saved me and taught me how to survive is that I ended up being arrested with a small amount of pot, and even though I was underage I lied my way through two months of incarceration in San Francisco city and the county jail. My alias was "John Russell," from another Paul Newman film:

Hombre. Hey Hoooombre: you have put a hole in me!

I had to grow up pretty suddenly to survive that: afterwards the streets were a piece of cake. I was the prince of my domain, which consisted of all of south of Market between Third and Sixth Street. I remember stepping over the drunken winos, and being used to everything smelling of stale booze and vomit from one dusty hotel room to another as I could scrounge up the means. Of course, I was secure in knowing if I couldn't find some money on any given day, there was always Saint Anthony's Kitchen over in The Tenderloin district for stale donuts and watery beans.


JS: So this all left you toughened up, and ready to move to Afghanistan, right?

WK: Well... yes! By the time I was 20 years old I was living in Afghanistan keeping apartments there in Kabul, Herat and Kandahar: I was working for an importer. I gotta say, it did get pretty out of control wild at times. Afghanistan back then was like an eleventh century version of the Wild West. Living there was my real education -- my university you might say -- and graduating meant you didn't get yourself killed. I was still 20 (maybe 21) years old when I had to take a gun away from a man and kidnap him. I dragged his ass across Afghanistan and held him for ransom until he and his family coughed up the money they had stolen from the man I worked for. Just that one story is a would make a nice feature article someday for the Huffington Post...

The whole episode culminated on the dusty streets of Herat, Afghanistan, with me taking on this guy and his family and then the both of us being carted off to the Herat prison -- where fortunately the Turkish sergeant liked how kind of tough and hell or high-water I was -- and took up my cause. Abdul Awaz went to jail and I went free: a good thing as at that point they still had balls and chains for the prisoners.

Afghan Kite

JS: Wesley, I'm betting that a single article would barely scratch the surface. Give me one more good story and then we'll talk about art.

WK: I have always carried with me the images of my last afternoon in Afghanistan, as they reverberate and resonate through my life to this day. I was leaving with mixed emotions: I so loved the place and I had been there a long time. Anyways, I was traveling in the back of a lorry with 20-25 Pathans (Afghans) going through the gun turreted no-man's land lunar landscape of the Khyber Pass. It's a tribal area and you can only travel through there during the day.

Well, there was one Americanized lost soul of an Afghan who had been to a university here and of course he decided to adopt me as his ally/fellow sophisticate, in this truckload of illiterates. On and on he went about his backwards fellow countrymen: he was of course dressed in a suit, so proud of his university education. He didn't seem to get that I was dressed like everyone else in the truck that perhaps my sympathies were not 100% with him.

Anyways, we pulled up at the edge of a muddy gulch where a chai shop had been dug back into a cliff and I sat there and watched this man, child in his arms, black turban double rows of bullets crossing his chest, rifles slung on his back and then turned to his father -- his reverse image wearing a white turban -- and we spoke. I told them both how much I loved their country and how I had learned so much how much I didn't want to leave. Anyways, the old man got up, motioned to me C'mon and the three of us went in the back where there was a large hookah sitting there. The black turbanned dude put some hashish in the pipe and his father admonished him:

Don't be so cheap! Put a bigger chunk!

Next, a hot coal was placed over the now larger chunk of hashish and we commenced smoking. It was strong, very strong, and I started coughing. At which point the Americanized Afghan burst into the room yelling: '

Mister, mister! don't do that ! It will make you crazy! 

In response, the old man pointed to the door and replied:

"Burro baha'i! (Go by god!) This young man is more of an Afghan than you will ever be."

That remains, to this day the greatest compliment, I've ever received. It was the moment when I first considered the inherent dichotomy of the self-realized individual as opposed to the university driven generic.

Works on paper in progress

JS: As a university driven generic I need to think about that Wesley, but you tell a great story. Now tell me what happened next when you got back to the states.

WK: I started painting upon my returning from Afghanistan. I moved to Austin Texas where my formal studies began at Laguna Gloria School of Art. I painted with the little old ladies who were busy painting grandson Johnny or a niece and nephew's portrait. The little old ladies were for the most part badasses. I painted portraits, seascapes and still lifes. And yes, even then the comments were always along the lines of: "There is something different about your work Wesley. You are going to go do something larger than this place."

Funny enough when I went to a regular art school (MCAD) everyone was like WHERE did you learn to paint like that? With the little old ladies is where...

Untitled (Seascape)

JS: How did you get your nickname: The Shark?

WK: You bring up my old alter ego 'The Shark,' which I employed while being the leader/mascot /driving force behind Shark Forum blogsite here in Chicago. Shark Forum served multiple purposes: first it was a weapon I used to attack institutional hackademic art world apparatchiks that run rough roughshod over the Chicago scene emanating from the art education system. Primarily at this point in time, SAIC. The Shark, swam in a cesspool of institutionalized corruption pushing academic conformity/ mediocrity.

War, Kite Flyers: for Shannon, 2015, 9 x18 feet, alkyd resin on canvas

JS: So you have some pretty stinging things to say about the Chicago art scene...

WK: Of course Chicago can surely be seen as metaphor for the toweringly stupid art world of the moment. Its such a sea of shit awash in massive piles of stupid money: where to begin taking on this dystopia?

Wesley Kimler: Photo by Amina Dollah Kimler

JS: What about New York?

WK: Look at The Forever Now exhibition now on view at MOMA in New York: not a good painter in sight. Much has been written about how bad it is. As Christian Viveros-Faune noted, it should be called Forever Sucks. But then, everyone is using the pejorative term Walter Robinson coined -- Zombie Formalism -- which is great. In NYC we are looking at massive decline and a whole power structure in place: holding the reins, clinging to power. As far as critics go, I like Jerry Saltz quite a lot. He is a good man and in ways the equivalent H.L. Mencken of today's art world. That doesn't mean he knows anything about painting. I am convinced actually, that he wouldn't know a good painting if it came up and bit him on the ass. The problem is that he's not alone!

Operation: Foragers (Admiral Raymond Spruance), 2015
12 x9 feet, alkyd resin on canvas

JS: Who are your artist heroes?

WK: As a kid I would wander through the old Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco and scratch my head at those strange David Park paintings. Even after a few years of art school I was far more interested in the Bay Area Funk scene -- Roy De Forrest with his psychedelic dogs -- and then I changed and started seeing the way I see even now. I love early Joan Brown and her work became very important to me: also Diebenkorn, early Paul Wonner and Frank Lobdell.

But first and foremost is David Park.

I like a wide range of painting going back in history: what serious painter doesn't? Titian was good... I think we can ixnay the lower strata of Impressionism and revisit Gerome and Messionier: some revisionism might be in order there. Malcolm Morley I have always liked the whole London school: particularly Kossoff. My friend Don Suggs is a brilliant painter as is another pal Ashley Bickerton. Mark Dutcher and I have become fast friends: he is a wonderful painter who is just now unfolding. Ed Moses is a dear friend and hero of mine for sure both as a painter and as a man. And of course Joan Mitchell and de Kooning are important to me, but so is Lee Bontecou.

The Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard is doing interesting work.

The drawing wall in Wesley Kimler's studio

JS: What would you say is the situation of painting right now?

WK: There are all kinds of art and all kinds of painting. No matter your preference, there are good versions and bad versions. The trouble is that in this age of visual illiteracy, the people in power are clueless as to the difference.

Dan McCleary: 'Every Day Sacred,' Paintings from 1993 to 2013 at the USC Fisher Museum of Art

Dan McCleary: Photo by Wayne Shimabukuro

Painter Dan McCleary, who in 2010 founded Art Division, which serves young adult art students in the Rampart District of Los Angeles, has a deep feeling for human dignity. For more than 30 years McCleary has been painting models chosen from his friends and acquaintances, portraying them with equal doses of solemnity and candor. A carefully chosen selection of his works, now on view at the USC Fisher Museum of Art gives some indication of McCleary's accomplishments. Christopher Knight of the Los Angeles Times says that McCleary "...is among the finest figurative painters working today."

I recently asked Dan about his style, his working methods and his influences.

John Seed Interviews Dan McCleary

JS: How did you choose the paintings on view at USC from twenty years worth of work?

DM: There was only space in the galleries for 16 paintings. I worked closely with the curator, Ariadni Liokatis on selecting which works to show. She did an excellent job editing the paintings down to the 16 on display.

The Channel Surfer, 2007,  oil on canvas, 40 1/2 x 56 inches

JS: Tell me about the style and approach that characterizes your recent paintings.

DM: In 1992 I had a job at the International School of Painting, Drawing and Sculpture in Umbria, Italy. Wayne Thiebaud was on the faculty. Up until that point I was using a lot of earth colors. He introduced me to an Impressionist palette that employs pure color. It changed the way I worked.

It was also the first time I saw in person the work of Giotto, Massaccio, Piero della Francesca and other Italian painters. That exposure had a huge effect on this body of work.

I also became less reliant on working from photography and started working directly from life. I will have the model come and pose for drawings and sometimes a photograph. The models return many times and pose in sets I build in the studio.

Security, 2007, oil on canvas, 40 1/2 x 46 1/2 inches

JS: Once you set up a scenario, how long does it take to complete a painting?

DM: It can take up to nine months to finish a painting. I usually work on four or five painting simultaneously. I work two to three hours a day with the model and continue to work on the paintings alone. There are usually two or three models posing throughout the week.

The Blue Guide II, 1998, oil on canvas, 55 x 45 inches

JS: Since you now have a studio next door to Art Division, where you teach, do you let students observe your process?

DM: For about 3 years a student Emmanuel Galvez had a studio in my studio. I think it was helpful to him to see how a painting is put together from beginning to end. He is doing really well and is getting ready for his second exhibit at Craig Krull Gallery.

I am preparing for an exhibit at Vita Art Center in Ventura that will feature portraits of the students. Other students will work alongside me.

Woman Painting Her Nails, 2004, oil on canvas, 46 1/2 x 40 1/2 inches

JS: Tell me about your painting Woman Painting Her Nails.

DM: That was one of a pair of paintings I did using a bathroom as their setting: the other is Man Weighing Himself. In many of my paintings women are doing rather androgynous activities, for example working in restaurants and I decided that I wanted to try making a really feminine painting. I talked a number of women friends as to how they did their nails. I tried to recreate that act as closely as possible. The finished painting is seen from a child's point of view, as if they are watching their sister or mother getting ready for the day or evening.

Man Weighing Himself, 2004, oil on canvas, 45 x 36 1/2 inches

JS: Even though you are depicting something private you seem very interested in giving your model dignity.

DM: I want to keep a prudent distance from the model. The people I paint are always people I have respect for. I have to have some sort of connection to them.

JS: What kind of working attitude do you bring to the studio?

DM: For me, painting is just working. It requires a lot of time alone which I enjoy.

Seven-Eleven, 1996, oil on canvas, 36 x 52 inches

JS: Even though you work from live models, you have mentioned that memory plays a role in your work too.

DM: I relied heavily on memory when I did the Seven-Eleven painting. When I went back to the actual Seven-Eleven store it looked nothing the set I put together in the studio The two bathroom paintings are based on my memory of the bathroom we had when I was a child, In actuality it may have looked nothing like the one in the painting. I do remember the color -- that sort of aqua -- but I'm not sure if that color was actually there.

Alex, Robert and Sami, 2009, oil on canvas, 59 x 45 inches

JS: Who are some of the artists you have been looking at recently?

DM: I continue to look at Vermeer and Manet. I'm also interested Euan Uglow: I'm really curious about the way he works.

The Manicure, 2013, oil on canvas, 56 1/2 x 51 inches

JS: You have been a representational painter in the era of Postmodernism: how has your career progressed in that context?

DM: I never felt like I was an "outsider" making figurative art. In the Bay Area where I lived for 6 years in the 70's and got started there is a great tradition of figurative art. I discovered David Hockney's work in the early 70's and it had a huge impact on my work I also liked the paintings of Eric Fischl and Alfred Leslie. I never felt I was an odd man out. John Sonsini and I talk to almost daily and I also keep in close contact with John Nava. I was also very close with Mark Stock, who recently passed away. I have always felt like I had a community of like-minded artists.

The Manicure (detail)

JS: How has being at Art Division changed you and your work?

DM: It's a big change opening the school. I am no longer in a cloistered world: my studio is right next door to the library and there is a constant flow of people in and out of my world and my studio. I have very little privacy but it's a pleasurable trade off. Life at 62 is very different from life at 32 or 42. I feel more in charge of things. I try to work 6 days a week and take Sunday off.

Dan McCleary: Photo by Wayne Shimabukuro

Artist's Talk:

Dan McCleary will be speaking on Saturday, February 14th at 1 PM
USC Fisher Museum of Art
823 Exposition Blvd. Los Angeles, 90089

'Interiors and Places': David Park, Richard Diebenkorn and Elmer Bischoff at HACKETT | MILL

Helen Park Bigelow and Michael Hackett with David Park's The Bus

Interiors and Places, on view at Hackett | Mill in San Francisco through March 27th, brings together a selection of 13 paintings by the three founding members of the Bay Area Figurative Movement: David Park, Richard Diebenkorn and Elmer Bischoff. Park is best represented, with nine paintings on view, along with two works each by Diebenkorn and Bischoff. Co-curated by Michael Hackett and Francis Mill, and made possible by the willingness of private collectors and one institution to lend rare works, Interiors and Places is an exceptionally beautiful show that makes a valuable point: Bay Area Figuration has its roots in scenes of familiar people, scenes and objects, rendered with genuine affection.

David Park, Woman with Coffeepot, 1958, oil on canvas, 39.5 x 53.25"
Collection of the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts; Director's Fund Purchase

The exhibition offers a chance to see paintings that have rarely or never been seen in public, including David Park's 1958 Woman with Coffeepot, which is on loan from the collection of Michigan's Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. According to Francis Mill, it took about 10 years -- from conception to fruition -- to make the exhibition happen. Its opening night clearly brought a great deal of joy and satisfaction to many people, especially friends and family members of the three artists: so did the opportunity to stare at and closely inspect the works on hand.

Artists Kelly Detweiler and Jennifer Pochinski take in David Park's Surf Bathers

Seeing a David Park painting in person always offers a reminder of just how fresh and bold his use of paint was. Looking across the surface of his Surf Bathers, with its fluid intermixing of brushwork and palette knife, provides viewers the chance to appreciate the balance between representation and abstraction that give his works their aesthetic tension and vibrancy.

David Park, Surf Bathers (1956) detail

Gazing at the works on view also offers the chance for fresh revelations about their themes and meanings. David Park's The Bus, a large oil from 1952 struck me as having an underlying theme of individualism. As a woman walks away from a bus she goes her own direction while the bus carries its group of riders on to the next stop. For Park, who a few years before had chosen figuration when every other ambitious modern artist was painting abstractly, the theme of being on one's own had a special resonance.

David Park, The Bus (c. 1952) detail

There are many other personal meanings suggested by the Park paintings on view. The three orbs of fruit in a black and green striped bowl in Park's deeply moving Table with Fruit have something to say about the sweetness of family life: there is one piece of fruit for each Park family member depicted: David, Lydia and Natalie. The red chair stands empty as a reminder of Helen, who had recently left home and married.

David Park, Interior with Fruit, 1951-52, 46 x 35.5", oil on canvas, private collection

David Park, Table with Fruit (1951-2) detail of the bowl

David Park, Table with Fruit (1951-2) detail of the chair

Hung in the same room as Table with Fruit is another empty chair, Richard Diebenkorn's 1960 Black Chair, painted the year of Park's death. In the dialog between the two paintings, with their suggestions of presence and absence, is a message about the importance of family and friends. Interiors and Places is a show that pays tribute to the exchange of ideas and enduring friendship between three artists who were in turn supported by the love of their wives and families.

David Park paintings © Hackett | Mill, representative of the Estate of David Park

Interiors and Places
January 30, 2015 - March 27, 2015
Hackett | Mill 201 Post Street, Suite 1000
San Francisco, CA 94108
Tuesday - Friday, 10:30am-5:30pm; & by appointment.

Upcoming Lecture:
Hackett | Mill will host a lecture with Nancy Boas, author of David Park, A Painter's Life, on February 19, 2015.