Updated: 3 / 5 / 2014
author: Liz Kirchner

Multi-layered 'Periphanatic' Draws Art Lovers to Waddell Gallery

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One piece at Kunel's show, on view at the Waddell Gallery until March 21


Pink and green hightops, eggplant-purple hoodies, a tie-dyed Jimmy Buffet t-shirt, and a glossy butterscotch pony-tail fill the gallery. Someone, caught mid-project, has hurried to the gallery still wearing her paint-spattered studio apron: blue with lashes of yellow and cream across her belly.

The Fine Arts and Design students filling the Gallery in the foyer of Waddell Hall with talk and movement are as brilliant as the art surrounding them - they're art themselves. And maybe that's what the show's multi-media artist, Jeremy Kunkel, is trying to tell us in the stacks of jutting blocks, recycled plywood, silver gelatin emulsion, and magenta paint that compose the exhibit: we are multi-layered. We're brilliant. We should look at each other and ourselves head-on.

The swirl of young art students nibbling refreshment cookies seem flimsy, sleepy, unformed against Kunkel's bulk as he stands in the middle of the small gallery like a rock in a river, hunched, hands shoved in khaki coat, collecting his thoughts while Lucy Weber, an art history professor at NOVA’s Loudoun campus, in sunny yellow hair and sweater, introduces him.

"He creates art smaller than a page, and building-sized murals," she says and invokes Michaelangelo to say that an artist is "always learning.”

She's right. The technical skill and poetry of this exhibit is the expression of a multi-layered, always-learning life.

Kunkle, hands out of pockets now and animated, talking about learning, says, "It's important to understand the balance between the two parts of art: the technical part physically how to do something and thinking about what you're doing....The thinking part has to get over" - he uses his hands to demonstrate - "to express the idea."

Lots of heads nod when he says, "How you see something...How do you take an idea and put it into perspective for people to see?"

In this show, Kunkel's pieces often talk about Connection and Perspective. A face (his own) painted in mustards and browns on individually jutting blocks - when viewed obliquely, the face is a garbled, if intriguing, puzzle, but with a small shift, you stand face-to-face, the jumble of a person or an idea slides into focus. 

Could it be his photography training as a kid fiddling in a darkroom in a trailer in his California backyard, these conversations about small shifts bringing everything into focus? Or was it tinkering in the garage with his Dad, his stint in the Army (somehow, he worked in a restaurant in Saudi Arabia), or eating Top Ramen in LA scratching out an artist's life painting opera scenery that now make him as at home wielding hammer and belt-sander to tell his stories as he is with delicate photography emulsions and a brush. 

Really hammering home the idea of perspective in layers of technical and poetic skill is a piece that, at first glance, looks like a clothes rack. In a wooden stand, two pieces of person-sized plywood face each other, their block-faces (painted in light-sensitive silver photography gelatin) jut between them. They're too close for you to stick your head between.

"Onlookers aren't allowed to interrupt," this conversation between the faces, Kunkel explains. Amazingly, the two faces are the artist's himself - one his face now, the other Himself 20 years ago. It's a conversation no one else can understand.

Even the person-sized plywood is meaningful. "I liked that it was plywood," he says,"It was layers. I found it on the side of the road. Had it for a year in the back yard. It was covered with paint and beat-up. I stripped off the paint and planed it down."

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The artist with his work

Kunkel talks for an hour, revved up by questions. Here he's both teacher and student, he advises the young group, "As I traveled around in the service and school and met teachers, I learned about other media and found I could express different ideas in different media."  A girl in maroon asks, "Do you ever find yourself getting in your own way?" He says "yes" and tells a story about his favorite photographer William Mortenson, about the difficulty of taking portraits of people looking "happy".

On some levels, the show examines how technology (ironically, "being connected") alters human interaction. “More and more you see people that are looking down...and conversing with people through something instead of directly interacting,” he said.  But Kunkel is no Luddite.

He filmed the construction - and that's what it was - of the mural on the gallery's back wall from plywood panel start ("It was very sculptural," said Dr. Weber) and it's not finished. The process is posted on Kunkel's web site.

There's turquoise paint on the walls and a drop cloth on the floor. Passers-by are offered the brush. "Last night I sanded away that bottom corner, what happens is I put a glaze layer on and sand it away and the glaze has gotten in the cracks and stays," he notes.

"Part of painting isn't just putting layers on top, but removing layers, I want to show the layers, pulled back. Ten years ago, I worked on a big building mural with an artist friend of mine and we were about half-way through and a piece of the dry wall got wet and tore,” he said. “And we had this tear, so we ripped the whole piece off and kept painting. It was actually really beautiful so it looked like where we pulled away, and there was another mural underneath."

Multilayered messages about human existence, the pieces in Periphanatic are at once muscular and delicate, lonely and happy. A lot like life.

Periphanatic runs until March 21. Visit Jeremy Thomas Kunkel's website (www.asubtle.com) for his array of work and a video of the Waddell mural unfolding.