Kershisnik and the Primary Experience

Last week I went to a couple of sessions of an art symposium. The invited guest speaker was the artist Brian Kershisnik, a local artist whom I find to be quite talented. During his speech, Kershisnik mentioned that he finds it important for painting to be self-aware. In other words, the painting should manifest awareness that it is a painting, awareness that it is a flat canvas which contains representations of objects with the medium of paint. This self-awareness of painting can especially be observed in Kershisnik’s style, since his figures are very flat. In this painting, Gardening in the Rain, the flatness of the figure (and subsequently, the flatness of the canvas) is further emphasized by the pattern on the woman’s dress and the stylized depiction of falling rain.

During a Q & A session, I asked Kershisnik to further discuss his ideas regarding the self-awareness of painting. He said something interesting, which I can’t quote verbatim (my notes are already packed away!) but it went something like this:

I am interested in one having a primary experience with painting and not a surrogate experience.

In other words, Kershisnik aims to have a viewer of his work aware that he/she is standing in front of a canvas that is covered with paint. In my opinion, this aim is in contrast to many realist painters who hope that the viewer is able to place himself/herself within the painting and have a surrogate experience with the work of art (“I feel like I’m actually there!” kind of idea). With a primary experience, however, I think that one is completely external to the painting and aware of his/her present surroundings.

I think that this escapist/surrogate experience has its own place within the world of art, but I think that I generally prefer the primary experience. I love looking at the tactility of the paint (hooray for impasto!) and observing the artist’s “hand” through the movement of the brushstrokes.

What do you prefer? A primary experience? A surrogate experience? A mixture of the two? In some ways, I like having a mixture of the two paradigms (I love to be swept away in the drama of Baroque subject matter), but I think I lean a little bit more heavily on the primary experience over the surrogate.

  • GermyB says:

    Does Kershisnik want his viewers to have a “primary experience” with the painting itself, and not with the meaning he, as the artist, has tried to imbue it with? It seems to me that if he is still using symbols (people, landscapes, rain), then the viewer is still going to try to figure out what Kershisnik means by the painting. This seems like a kind of secondary experience – though perhaps not “surrogate,” as he says. Maybe it could be a primary experience through the painting, rather than with the painting – or a little of both. A true “primary experience,” in my mind, would be more along the lines of what you’re describing – the paint, the colors, the composition – and not with the subject matter or the meaning of the painting.

    Either way, I like Kershisnik’s approach of avoiding the “surrogate” experience. Just like Fried claimed that Minimalism is “too easy,” I think that realism is too easy, in a way. In our day, if you want realism, take a photo – don’t paint a painting. There’s no reason to have to deny the paint anymore – so, painting shouldn’t try to. Plus, realism (in painting) feels so closed-off – there’s nowhere to go with it, and the end-goal is too clearly defined.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.