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Scratching the Surface 

Lately, we hear a lot about surfaces. We have become conscious of some places being higher or lower than others. We used to think the city was flat but it turned out to have all sorts of contours, elevations and depths hidden in plain sight. Now FEMA is trying to figure it all out, but artist Michael Kessler has been investigating such things for years. Although based in New Mexico, and his native Pennsylvania before that, Kessler has studied the illusory aspects of surfaces and expressed something of his explorations in the symbolic language of his paintings. Although abstract, they often hint at mythic landscapes shaped by the mysterious forces of man and nature.

"Appearances are deceptive," he says, "and anyone who is interested in the true nature of the universe knows that there are far more questions than answers. ... I'm building a surface, and not so much an image." The term "building" is apt because most of his paintings are built in layers of color on wood. For instance, Sagger, with its gentle earth tones and roseate contours pierced by rigid straight lines, hints at abstract assemblages of exotic woods in forms reminiscent of sailboat hulls. But it's just a large, flat panel that expresses Kessler's peculiar mix of formal design and free-form elements suggesting anything from sandy deltas to the capillary networks of mammals. Somehow, it's all neatly realized and visually elegant.

Kessler's concoctions are typically defined by these clashes of the concrete and the nebulous, but in Obrotund the free-form overwhelms the order of a rectangular grid as a pair of eerie venous networks somehow suggest natural forms ranging from eroded mountain ranges to an X-ray of someone's lungs, recapitulating that counterpoint of the fragile and the adamant. The Southwest is suggested in Kessler's reds, blacks and earth tones, but a hint of this area appears in Underground, where a mystic blue surface gives way to a pair of rectangles like hatchways to the plutonic depths of the subconscious -- or, in the words of the old song, "somewhere beyond the sea." And depth is the key to these paintings, in the sense that they are like windows into other worlds. As Kessler puts it: "I see my work as a metaphor for nature -- about wondering how it got that way, realizing that we may never find out. I'm interested in beauty, but not a superficial or superfluous beauty -- something deeper."

More mysteries have recently surfaced in the ongoing saga of Charity Hospital, as well. In the Jan. 10 "Inside Art" column, we noted the many aesthetic and symbolic reasons why we felt Charity was too important to be torn down, as initially recommended by Don Smithburg, the CEO of the state hospital system. (He now says he favors selling it.) After Katrina hit, Smithburg declared the 65-year-old Charity, and its nearly half-century old neighbor, University Hospital, to be totaled, and had an emergency clinic set up in tents at the Convention Center. Smithburg said Charity was too dated, too damaged and too (shudder) "filled with germs" to be used. The hope was that FEMA would fork over $700 million for a newer if smaller "state of the art" facility. But FEMA offered only the $23 million it says renovating Charity would cost, an offer Smithburg declined. But some of the hospital's doctors had said all along the building would be fine with some renovations and repairs, and had even readied several floors themselves before being evicted by state administrators.

Now, in one of those ironic twists, it is the clinic at the Convention Center that is being evicted, and with area hospitals drowning in the sorts of uninsured acute cases that Charity once handled, Smithburg has announced that a few floors of University Hospital will be reopened after all. That's a good start, but there's a grand old hospital right next door that many doctors say could be handily resuscitated in relatively short order. Trying to hold out for the LSU wish list may be tantamount to waiting for the tooth fairy. Lives are hanging in the balance, and that $23 million would go a long way toward restoring Charity's world famous Level 1 trauma center. People clinging to life by a thread don't have time for excursions to other parishes.

click to enlarge In Michael Kessleris Underground, a mystic blue - surface gives way to a pair of mysterious rectangles like - windows into other worlds.
  • In Michael Kessleris Underground, a mystic blue surface gives way to a pair of mysterious rectangles like windows into other worlds.
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