(from the exhibition catalogue for Jeff Koegel: Real Estate at Pasadena Museum of California Art)
Real Estate | essay by Peter Clothier
Jeff Koegel speaks with fascination about the Portuguese man-o-war jellyfish. It is, he explains, “not a single animal, but a colony of several different animals, each dependent on the others for survival.” He finds it amazing that these marine creatures find a way to assemble themselves into a working organism.
He could, in some sense, be talking about one of his recent paintings, which seem to be composed of disparate, oddly assorted, even sometimes seemingly incompatible but interconnected parts, each of which finds its place in the complex working of the whole. (Those curious enough to check out the jellyfish on the Internet will find that its long, descending polyps, when diagrammed, bear a remarkable resemblance to those ubiquitous tubular shapes that evoke trees or human internal organs in Koegel’s paintings.)
But let’s talk first about Real Estate. Because that was originally, and remains, the central preoccupation of Jeff Koegel’s vision as a painter, and it’s no accident, of course, that he chose it as the title for the current exhibition. His earlier paintings invited us to contemplate acres of semi-abstract urban landscapes, industrial areas or abandoned drive-in movie lots, where empty space was given definition by the suggestion of hard-edge, architectural buildings, parking lots with multiple space divisions, billboards, swimming pools or concrete pits, chain-link fences... Subdued to the point of minimalism in both mood and palette, they often introduced a complementary note of the fantastic – even the spiritual with curious, intricate glimpses into what lay beneath, or behind, their bland exterior surfaces.
So we’re talking about space: how we occupy it, what it means to us and our sense of self within it, along with the deceptive, even illusionary quality by which what appeared to have a substantial presence in space will suddenly split open to reveal that it was not quite what we had thought. We’re talking about the illusion of material substance and the illusion of space, the constantly shifting ground of reality as we perceive it. These paintings challenge our comfortable notions about the reality of the material world.
Koegel achieves these effects like the Portuguese man-o-war. He brings things together, and pulls them a little bit apart for us to see where they don’t quite fit. He begins by laying down a background – in recent paintings, in intense and highly saturated color, reds and yellows in tight, vertical striations whose sometimes deeply ridged, sometimes pitted textures offer an insistent, yet vulnerable curtain against which his images play out. Dredged down across the surface, the viscous medium intrigues the eye with its depth and density, its play between control and accident of medium.
Against these prepared backgrounds, the images surprise us with their play between the representational and the abstract, the real and the surreal. In Street Flower, for example, the trail of dark smoke from what appear to be old-fashioned factory smokestacks outline the silhouette of a Buddhist temple and, at the same time, above, morph into the lighted dome of some futuristic space-ship. Below, on another plane, two tiny figures (transported from another time, another place: a painting by Vermeer) converse, improbably, on an extended green fairway; and, to the right of the painting, the title’s “flower,” takes the architectural form of a street lamp, blossoming out of the truncated, quasi-artificial shapes of a grove of trees.
What are we to make of this cosmic, provocatively apocalyptic vision, which embraces the ancient, the historical and the contemporary in the same breath as some distant, unforseeable future? The mind plays with notions of ecological destruction, of industry's toll on the environment, the defoliation of the trees. The street lamp looms like some apologetic outpost of the civilization with which we were once familiar, while the "space ship" leads the eye up and out, beyond the canvas, inviting – along with the spectral outline of that temple – some hope, perhaps, for spiritual salvation...
Okay, I understand that interpretations of this kind get fanciful, and that we risk ending up with your fancy competing with my own. And whenever we do get fanciful, with Koegel’s work, he’s always there to bring us back, gently but insistently, to the material reality of the paint. He’s content to play with our need to interpret, to catch the drift of his story, or a part of it, here and there; but when you get right down to it, he’s not really telling us a story at all: at most, he’s engaging us in his process, in the adventure of the paint.
Or the story, if it is one, is the journey of the eye. In Threshold of Liberty, one of Koegel’s most recent paintings, it starts, I think, where we feel most familiar. Ah, yes, we say: a house. A comfortable-looking sofa first attracts us, then unsettles us as we notice how the rug, below, droops like a Salvador Dali watch, and the wall behind is cut away to reveal that most private inner sanctum, the toilet (with paper, too, drooping down below the truncated floorboards. Behind, a door stands ajar, leading…into an ambiguous slice of light, seen nowhere else in the painting; and to the left, a broken stairway leads nowhere, and the interstice of a jagged wall leaves us wondering, is this the wall of the house itself? Or rather a passage into the surface of the painting? Do those strangely angled reflections of unseen windows, in the center and to the right, suggest the same: that the background is not a background at all, but the veil that conceals a reality either on this, the viewer’s side, or beyond? And what of that blue canopy that tents the disintegrating house? Another layer of concealment, through which we penetrate to get our fractured glimpse of what might be reality?
And the eye keeps journeying, guided here and there, as in all Koegel’s recent paintings, by dotted lines, guy ropes, ties, or simply drips of paint, tenuous connections – in the case of Threshold of Liberty to that symbol of liberty, the bird, perched atop one of those improbable, tubular trees, gazing out over the fragment of another blue canopy – another disintegrating house? – into the void beyond the painting’s edge.
Thus we get intrigued, seduced, deceived in Koegel’s work. Thus we get invited on a journey that has no goal, no explanation, really, but the mystery itself, on a path that leads us only to a new beginning, in some other place, where we stand again on the threshold – a different one, perhaps, and one that invites back into the painting’s surfaces for another tour of this enigmatic real estate.
Peter Clothier, the author of David Hockney in the Abbeville Modern Masters Series, writes about art and artists from Los Angeles.
(from the exhibition catalogue for Jeff Koegel: Real Estate at Pasadena Museum of California Art)
Walking into Deprivation | essay by Tyler Stallings
In the previous essay, Peter Clothier wrote eloquently about the symbolism and painterly process in Jeff Koegel’s recent work. This essay will address Koegel’s unique approach towards the presentation of his paintings for Real Estate as a large-scale installation that allows for the paintings to be experienced individually or as a whole experience. In the spirit of the light and space installation of James Turrell, Koegel has conceived his installation as a room of deprivation and disorientation in an effort to help us see our selves within the universe. It is the first time that Koegel has presented his paintings in such a fashion, an auspicious attempt in light of this also being his first solo exhibition
Turrell states, in the third installment of the Art:21 television series that focuses on contemporary artists, that he wants “to create an atmosphere that can be consciously plumbed with seeing,” one that is “like the wordless thought that comes from looking in a fire.” Through the use of perceptual illusions, Turrell’s work is concerned with assisting in a viewer’s spiritual awakening through an experience that affects the body and the mind. Koegel takes a route that is less abstract and reticent in appearance than Turrell’s installations by including imagery in his paintings that reflects a contemporary, industrialized world. Koegel hopes that his installation will not only create a perceptual, spiritual experience possessing some of the effects of a Turrell installation but to recognize that to be able to engage in this mystical context one must also recognize the affects that mankind’s mettle with natural materials has upon the whole planet and thus upon mankind’s character.
Koegel’s installation is a monochromatic, gray room in which the floor and walls are painted in a way so that the corners fade out. By removing the clues that provides one a sense of the room’s perimeter the walls can appear to have an infinite depth. Manipulation of the paint is the only special effect. There are no architectural alterations. The use of gray is a mid-value color that can suggest a kind of permanent twilight, capturing the viewer in between day and night. The transition from the white walls of the gallery entrance to the grey space will be streaked like the textured veiling in Koegel’s paintings. The streaks enhance the airiness in his horizonless landscapes and cause objects to appear to float in space. The effect of the absence of perceptual clues like the corners is akin to being within one of Koegel’s paintings. In this sense, you are inside and outside the space simultaneously. The streaks also suggest that the room has simply been dipped into paint, reinforcing the notion that the world that one is about to enter is one entirely made of paint, of imagery, and of illusion. It is an artificial world meant to help us see artifice as part of nature, but also to see the distancing effects that artifice can have.
Koegel is interested in how the landscape changes, but he does not suggest a cycle of death and rebirth, but rather one of constant change, never able to return to a prior state. Nature’s rules in Koegel’s work are ones of adaptation, metamorphosis, and recombination. Koegel’s imagery suggests that if any story is being told it is that the landscape is part of an organism in a state of entropy.
This is the oblique, big picture implied in his work. The specific imagery that Koegel has selected is one that clearly comes out of mankind’s manipulation of this environment. Koegel not only thinks about how people relate to and inhabit the space around them, but he also thinks about its commodification.
It is a landscape of factory smoke and butchered trees. Yet the smoke belching from the smokestacks is stylized in a manner that suggests an intestinal tract. The stumpy limbs and trunks of the butchered trees appear to have inner red color like blood that redefines them as arteries. It is a not so subtle representation of the connections between a human’s inner body and the outer body of nature.
This is well-represented in one of the more recently completed works for Real Estate. Like the majority of the paintings for this show, CLXXXVII. Water, Sugar, Protein reveals Koegel’s recent introduction of figures in his landscape. In this case, it is an astronaut dangling in space with an extenuated air-hose. However, instead of hanging in a dark outer space, he hangs in an equally horizonless, baby-blue space. He could be in the sky or he could be underwater.
Like all of Koegel’s figures, the astronaut does not have a personality. Rather Koegel’s figures are meant to be symbols, details in the bigger picture of the universe. One painting has a black crow of death and another painting has figures that appear to be walking in a devotional manner. In Water, Sugar, Protein, the astronaut evokes the admirable human penchant for taking risks by entering new territory, but it is an inclination that can also inspire territorial instincts like capture-and-control in this “newly discovered” territory.
The surrounding, background elements of the astronaut suggest the belched, sulfuric clouds of volcano-like structures. They also bring to mind internal organs. In the sense, the astronaut becomes a fetus, and the air hose an umbilical cord, a notion supported by the title, Water, Sugar, Protein – the three nutritional elements necessary for living beings.
Despite the scenarios of showing the interaction between nature’s and man’s respective industries, Koegel does not elicit damning statements in his paintings. Rather he is simply observing the changing environment. He leaves it to the viewer to decide how they feel about the changes. In this manner, Koegel does best what painting can do, which is to be silent. Generally, paintings do not “speak” to the viewer directly. You have to interact with them intellectually as they are not time-based, so it is much harder to be passive in front them if you expect any sort of meaningful interaction. It’s the same with nature. Nature doesn’t speak to you directly. People have to project upon it and figure out how they see themselves in it.
Will viewers see themselves within a changing environment in the most natural sense as animals that live alongside other animals and plants? Will they also see themselves as being animals who speed up some of these changes with their smokestacks – constructed from the clay found in the earth – that like, volcanoes, are orifices providing entries into the bellies of very different but interrelated beasts? Highlighting this necessarily contemplative, perceptual, intellectual interactive experience with both painting and nature, per se, is Koegel’s intention for his gray, twilight, floating world installation.
Tyler Stallings is the Artistic Director for Culver Center of the Arts & Director of Sweeney Art Gallery at University of California, Riverside. He was chief curator at Laguna Art Museum from 1999 to 2006. His curatorial projects focus on contemporary art, with a special emphasis on the exploration of identity, technology, and urban culture.
(from the exhibition catalogue for Slow Chemical Orchestra at Merry Karnowsky Gallery, Los Angeles)
Orchestral Maneuvers in the Shade | essay by Shana Nys Dambrot
“Contemporary history is told like a huge concert where they present all of Beethoven’s 138 opuses one after the other, but actually play just the first eight bars of each.” That’s from Milan Kundera’s 1995 novella – a strange, slim, prescient volume having to do with the relatively frenetic pace of modern life and what that both does to and says about the condition of our perceptions. The concept of “slowness” comes up in speaking with Jeff Koegel about his painting practice, because the remarkably measured pace at which he proceeds is germane to both the experience and meaning of his work. At least as fundamental as color theory, pattern, and texture, slowing down and inhabiting nuance also applies to the work’s effect on the viewer’s eyes, mind, and bodily motion. These complex, intriguing, generous and elusive paintings exist in the fullness of time and in conscious objection to the relentlessness of our world.
Koegel works nearly every single day, and completes maybe six paintings a year. “The biggest enemy of pictures is that there are too many,” says Koegel. “Our eyes are endlessly flooded with images,” and working meticulously on one single painting over the course of a relatively lengthy period of time is a balm for that condition. He’s not alone in celebrating this instinct for a pace correction. Slowing down and taking pleasure in the details of rhythm is an increasingly frequent motif in the current zeitgeist as evidenced in for example, the slow food movement, and the enthusiasm for hearing music on vinyl. Referring to whatever works are in progress in the studio at a given moment, he’ll says things like “I’m very interested in the relationships that are forming,” quite as though he had nothing to do with it and all the time in the world to wait for the painting to work itself out. Such observational detachment has roots in a quasi-scientific mode, but also requires an almost spiritual capacity for patiently brooking emotion.
Part of the reason all this takes so long is the jute. An extremely coarse fiber that is the raw material woven to make burlap, jute is earthy and “the most primitive material” Koegel knows. It offers one of the most seemingly unfriendly surfaces on which to deploy pigment, which Koegel absolutely loves because of “how it bites the paint off the brush,” jute forces Koegel to approach its presence both for the object that it is and the image it is helping create. Its contributions are disruption, disintegration, and supersaturation with absorbed paint applied in layers like spackle. The edging of hard-line shapes often means going in with fingernails, pushing tape deep into the weave, making stencils with more tape on top of the paint – tons of micro-adjustments in service of playing the roughness of the material against the crispness of shape and line. Koegel uses paint a little differently in every painting, even within a series; sometimes he pushes it through from the verso side, or drags a loaded brush across a grating surface, and myriad other formulations.
Kundera posited in the same book that “Conversation is not a pastime; on the contrary, conversation is what organizes time, governs it, and imposes its own laws, which must be respected.” He did this in the context of describing a scene of seduction, 18th century style, in which careful orchestration of events and their order and pace are the prerequisites for any memorable expression of passion. In In fact it is not only conversational, but it is also structurally similar to a symphonic composition in which a broad theme is established, a key motif presented, movements segue and spin their variations on action and emotion, and the finale returns to the theme and organizes a conclusive, satisfying synthesis.
Like the crash of cosmic cymbals or the rafter-shaking chords in the iconic bars of Beethoven’s 5th, 243.Obertondo sets the tone, offering a Big Bang opening establishing scale and scope for the whole adventure. Although initially seeming somewhat apart from the rest due to its linearity and the precision of its fractal, geological geometry; in fact its crosscurrents and nestled moments of pattern-detail telegraph the proliferations to come. It achieves emotional sparkle even without loose gestural expression, partly because of how the joyfulness of the colors play against the solemnity of the ground. Its materialistic problem-solving is refined and sort of sci-fi witty at the same time. Its compositional expansiveness and the crisp insistence of the lines themselves telegraph neurological, architectural, mandalic structuralism.
245.Amish Acid and 246.Blue Blood are geometrical, but in a different mode. By adding an aspect of the organic – or at least the terrestrial – Koegel reminds us that there is more than one dimension to everything. By doubling the image and switching off palettes in a kind of positive/negative polarity, he puts the focus on the shape and color and deflects story. Pursuing light and color gradations with incremental adjustments, and really allowing the texture of the painted surface to inform the crisp shapes of the composition, Koegel highlights the active perception of color and the forcing of constant eye movement.
247.Happiness and Poison echoes 243.Obertondo in certain details. But its saturation, randomization, and pattern recognition, hand-painted rings, and more forgiving raw linen (not jute) make it hover between comfort and anxiety. It looks both entirely man-made and like it could not have been made by a human hand. In fact, this work expresses the paradoxical balance of the two which animates all of his work. “I mix the paint to different consistencies depending on what I think I want, and I prepare the area I’m working on carefully, but putting the paint down has to be a simple move, letting the paint do the work. I don’t force it. I let it dry, change the mix of the paint and make another pass. Sometimes I do that four or five times, trying out variations. It’s like doing analog Photoshop work right on the canvas.”
Within this universe of anaerobic lifeforms, the faintest suggestion of narrative is all it takes to engage the associative operations of memory. In 248.Black n Blue and 249.Moth Season the tree imagery creates spatial perspective, as well as a certain narrative sentiment. With a nuanced dualistic palette related to but ultimately expanding on the dialog of 245. Amish Acid and 246.Blue Blood, this pair gets romantic with a poetic moonlit feeling, and autumnal with an undercurrent of ambers. The powdery white of the one background suggests to Koegel the dust of a moth’s wing, and the kind of spotted camouflage some of the prettiest species have developed over centuries. The pair also refers back to 247.Happiness and Poison in a nod to the biomorphic mathematics of its imagic scatter – and signaling in an unmissable way how the multiple interconnectivity between the thematics of the parts operates in harmony. 250.Hexxa Flag, 251.Hexxa Flag, and in a preview of this symphony’s coda, 255.Hexxa Flag, this flirtation with the introduction of iconography takes an even more specific form. But for Koegel, it is not a political one. The common thread (no pun intended) with the flags is the same kind of textile-based craft seen in quilts, indigenous rugs, sophisticated wallpaper, etc. But for Koegel it is about the “specific aesthetics associated with those aspects of craft that lend themselves to a charged optical effect.” He is looking only a little bit at Pop Art like Johns’ flag-paintings, and more at Op Art’s concern with keeping the eye in motion; and mainly at Pattern & Decoration artists like Joyce Kozloff, and even the precursors to Pattern & Decoration like Bauhaus textile visionaries Anni Albers and Gunta Stölzl, and Victorian designer/object of worship for all modern adherents of motif-chic, William Morris. Actually, what he’s doing is kindling a reinvention of Pattern & Decoration, retuned for the contemporary vision much as artist’s of Kozloff’s generation did within their own historical context.
Koegel is also looking at Islamic devotional design such as festoons the architecture of Spain’s celebrated Alhambra palace. He’s looking at the ways QR code turns information into image-blocks – but he’s making his code for the living eye, not the digital lens. The first set of two flags depicted the patterning with palettes and line-work directly referring to the paintings that came before them; and, in the metonymic strategy they share with orchestrated patterns and symphonic thematics, these paintings pull all the movements and moments together into an encompassing, articulated structure. The final flag painting goes a few steps further, echoing its own evolution like a hall of mirrors, or the compressed mineralogical strata of a painted desert. Its complexity self-affirms its vectral, crystalline forms like a genome or a master score.
252.Amok, 253.Dopamine Dance, and 254.Lazy Arabesque form another tripartite, in which Koegel maps out what at first seems quite a different terrain. By having three components to it, he sets this subseries up for self-contained semiotic sensibility; but that doesn't mean it's fully separate–mainly because it shares chromatic strategies with the others. But these works use a lexicon of gestural signs and styles like schematic, meandering arrows, color field swatches, and painterly strokes hovering above a vibrational surface executed on flatness-friendly wood. These are almost pictorial expressions of symbolism and nature in a landscape idiom. In 252.Amok, a green square in the lower right corner is both flag-like and a cartographic inset key. 253.Dopamine Dance with its visceral shades of bioneurology bounces its vectors around jauntily, as if to say "this is what you brain looks like when you're looking at this painting." You can feel it altering your perception, changing you long after you've stopped looking at it. 254.Lazy Arabesque offers an achingly slow orchestral swell, with a percussive low-frequency vibration, and plenty of time and room for the viewer to squeeze in between the lines.
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Los Angeles. She is currently LA Editor for WhiteHot Magazine,
Contributing Editor for Art Ltd., Art Editor for VS. Magazine, a featured writer and arts blogger at the LA Weekly, a contributor to
Flaunt Magazine, Bluecanvas, and KCET’s transmedia culture program, Artbound.