Kevin Kepple: New Work

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Editorial Review

Kepple goes beyond his classic look
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, September 28, 2012

Kevin Kepple’s art is instantly recognizable. Lush, liquid and supremely tactile, his color-drenched, mixed-media abstractions have always looked as though you could dip your fingers into them, like a lazy canoeist breaking the glassy surface of a technicolor pond.

So his latest solo exhibition at Addison/Ripley Fine Art, “Kevin Kepple: New Work,” may come as a bit of a surprise to followers of the local artist’s career. The dominant palette is milky white. And many of the pieces -- sandwiched between sheets of plexiglass that hold the works an inch from the wall -- have an almost bas-relief sculptural quality, like pressed flowers.

Except they don’t really look like flowers at all, but like white brambles or a snarl of those plastic six-pack rings that are notorious for ensnaring sea creatures. They’re still beautiful, but not in the way we’re used to or maybe even comfortable with.

Only a handful of pieces take advantage of color. The algal hue of “Mr. Yuk (Is Green)” and the bloody red of “Away O’Life” connect us to Kepple’s earlier, chromatically indulgent paintings. One of two brownish-amber works, “Wasp II,” has the reptilian look of snakeskin. They’re reminders of the classic Kepple.

Elsewhere in the show, color is sublimated, submerged, as though choking in the rings of the phlegmy glue -- not paint -- that is Kepple’s signature medium.

If it all sounds a bit morbid and repellent, it’s not.

Well, not entirely. To be sure, some of Kepple’s titles do allude to poison (“Mr. Yuk”) and venom (“Wasp II”). “Black Lung” is a powerful -- and almost suffocatingly tight -- work inspired by Kepple’s grandfather, a Pennsylvania steelworker who died with what the artist calls half a lung. There’s a shadow of something dark and disturbing hanging over this show.

Yet there’s also an undeniable visual pleasure. Some have dismissed Kepple’s art in the past as decorative (as though that were a crime), but his current body of work exudes a satisfying tension between the sensuous and the somber.

Formally, this new direction is at once more sculptural and more like drawing than painting. Kepple “draws” with glue, dribbling it in looping, lacy patterns that, once dried, are layered, one on top of the other. He refers to the spaghetti-like tangle of glue as the bones of his paintings. Some have a thin veneer that he calls skin.

These corporeal allusions aren’t accidental. As Kepple’s work has grown leaner and less fleshy, it also has become tougher, without being mean. The work is still easy on the eyes, but it has lost most of its baby fat.

The story behind the work
By Michael O’Sullivan
Friday, September 28, 2012

Don’t you just hate it when a manufacturer suddenly changes (or, worse, stops making) your favorite shampoo, cookie or soft drink? For Kevin Kepple, a reformulation of his primary artmaking material -- Elmer’s Glue-All -- had repercussions more personally devastating than the disastrous 1985 introduction of New Coke.

Kepple had long used the white household adhesive as a binder, mixing it with water-based inks and varnishes to create a luminous, gemlike surface. About a year and a half ago, he remembers reacting with horror when the batch of glue he had just mixed turned, before his eyes, into “cottage cheese.”

“I looked up,” he recalls, “and there
on the bottle it said, ‘New Stronger Formula.’ ”

The change in the recipe -- confirmed, Keeple says, by an Elmer’s research and development man as an effort to improve the glue’s shelf life -- precipitated a frustrating, year-long search for a replacement that would meet the artist’s meticulous standards. Glue, Kepple says, is an inherently uncooperative medium, more sensitive to temperature and humidity than more traditional painting materials.

Eventually, Kepple found a suitable substitute, made by Sargent Art, but only after countless dead ends and failed experiments with other brands. It was that enforced spirit of experimentation that led him to deconstruct the very way he makes art, ultimately producing the stripped-down body of work on view at Addison/Ripley.

The process of trial and error had another unexpected consequence. “I now know more about glue,” he says, “than is rational.”