THE FIGURE ARRIVES
by Charles Lohrmann
When an established artist creates a new body of work destined for an upcoming gallery exhibit, collectors and art watchers immediately want to know more. Does the new work represent an evolution of past work and themes or a departure into a distinctly new direction? Is it an exploration of completely new territory or a refinement of existing direction? And what about new media? Or unexpected subjects?
For Will Klemm, a summer 2015 exhibit scheduled for Austin’s Wally Workman Gallery promises both evolution and exploration. The new work will include not only landscapes at once reminiscent of previous work and still challenging existing perceptions, but also rodeo and cowboy figures.
“I have been wanting to work with figures for some time,” Klemm explains. “I’ve painted a few over the years, but this is the first time I’ve committed to the human figure. It really started organically. I didn’t have a specific plan to develop this theme.”
With the exhibit still months away, Klemm’s East Austin studio presents a collection of oil paintings and other works that evidence his new artistic concentration. Landscapes hang adjacent to horsemen wearing white hats and shirts and handling ropes as if at work on the ranch or in the arena.
Even though the figures clearly represent a departure for Klemm, the sensibility is still his own, and it is one not of this time.
“These pieces really have more to do with form,” he says. “Landscapes have more to do with space.”
Then, pointing to a painting of two figures walking toward a herd of cattle, he says, “This work has a lot to do with movement and with developing gesture.”
How long does such a directional shift require?
“I started this about a year ago,” Klemm says, “so I’ve been slowly working up to it. It was the summer of 2014. I felt like I was ready to undertake this new challenge.”
With the discussion of new work, it seems timely to consider how the work fits into the larger context of the contemporary art world. With landscapes, it seems that representational work strives either to document—represent—reality, or to offer a unique interpretation of the world as it is with distinctive handling of light and color characterizing the unique statement. A third goal of representational work is to create an illusion or establish a mood through a scene. The viewer then shares the illusion or mood created by the artist.
If a category is necessary, this third category—that of creating an illusory, moody world defined by soft edges and mysterious light—is where Will Klemm’s work up to now could be most aptly placed.
“I really don’t relate my work to much contemporary art,” Klemm says. “I convey more of a 19th century approach of mood and romanticism.”
Just as the evocation of a 19th century sensibility defines Klemm’s work until now, a similar sensibility could be what defines his choice of subject, which includes cowboys and western figures. Working with figures in the context of the western landscape or even the rodeo arena makes them more present to the viewer.
“They really just have better clothes (than other contemporary subjects),” Klemm says, only half humorously, adding that “there is an aspect of drama in what they wear, and that might be more typical of the 19th century in that the clothes define the work they do. And also, these are contemporary outfits of today. And still, they relate to the 19th Century.”
More important than just the clothing, though, is that the figures Klemm chooses to capture in his work “represent definite action in the real world.”
There is one additional, and surprising, element in some of this new work from Klemm, and that is an overlay of mark-making in the work. These are not hard-edged marks but the sort that might be described as a video image on a screen with poor reception: translucent layers with grainy hints of color.
Klemm describes these as a means of “exploring the nature of perception. Actually a layer between the viewer and the subject.”
Not purely artistic experimentation, the inclusion of these marks in the paintings grew out of a personal experience related to Klemm’s own vision: a condition for which he has undergone treatment. The effect on the paintings is not exactly the same with each instance, but it could be compared to the scrim employed as a visual effect in operatic or dramatic staging. The scrim is opaque until it, or the scene it separates from the viewer, is illuminated from behind. By using this gauzy fabric hanging across the stage, the director can create a different sense or different perception that takes place behind the scrim. The perception can be of seeing action from afar or in another time. Both notions are appropriate for Klemm’s current use of the layered marks.
With Klemm’s technique, the viewer sees the subject clearly, but must contend with the distraction to perception.
The majority of Klemm’s current work is in oil, with some experimentation in the realms of pen and ink, felt pen on panel, and gouache on panel. In this scenario, though, the medium is not the message. Or it certainly does not define the message. The new figurative work from Will Klemm challenges the artist, and hence the viewer, to embrace a new experience of form, gesture, and movement while accepting a new context for perception itself.