By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“It bothered me a bit, I must admit, when I first started doing portraits of John,” he tells me over a cup of tea in the sparkling, light-dappled kitchen that looks out on his back garden. “They weren’t like what I thought I should be doing.”
“How did you think they should look?” I ask.
“Well, I grew up wanting to be Jackson Pollock,” Messer says, as if that explains everything (which it does). “I thought paintings had to be much more about showing something than representing it. But I think that the idea that they‘re old-fashioned comes out of the 20th century, where art was always changing, and I think that most of that is just about looks. One of the problems of our culture is that people are looking for what looks new rather than what’s meaningful. A lot of it has to do with selling, and in that sense it‘s kind of like Hollywood. Who’s the new young thing?”
Although he‘s resigned to having them described as such, Messer doesn’t really believe that his paintings are old-fashioned -- at least not in the way they‘re constructed. “There’s no logic to the perspective, there‘s no logic to the scale from one item to the next,” he explains. “If you look at The Wizard of Brooklyn, the bottom part of the painting, the middle part of the painting, makes no sense with Paul. There’s an internal logic, an internal narrative within each painting that dictates where things are and how things relate.”
While Messer and I talk, going from garden to house, sitting in the kitchen, traveling from room to room, Eleanor floats about doing various things. Josephine is in school, but you can feel her presence, not just in the paintings of her on the walls, but in the house itself. Something is at the center, between mother and father, and at this time on a weekday it‘s not there. Not a sense of absence, exactly, just a piece temporarily missing.
There’s something especially alive about a house whose inhabitants not only exist in its rooms but lead a second, more mysterious life on its walls, dog included. That other existence, constantly added to, seems to me a wonderful thing. And an artist who makes this happen is surely a very different creature from one whose work is comprehensible only in the context of a gallery or museum.
It was around the time I talked with Messer that Martin Creed‘s The Lights Going On and Off, an installation consisting of lights blinking on and off in an otherwise empty art gallery, won England’s prestigious Turner Prize, presented at a televised award ceremony by Madonna. I tell Messer how a cleaner in a London art gallery mistakenly threw the cigarettes in a Damien Hirst sculpture, composed of real cigarette butts in a real ashtray, in the trash recently, and Messer responds with a story about the minimalist sculptor Carl Andre, who was accused of pushing his wife out of a window in 1985. When Andre tried to make bail by putting up one of his sculptures as collateral, the judge said: “Maybe where you come from a pile of bricks is worth a lot of money, but not in this courtroom.”
“What about portraiture as a genre?” I ask Messer. “Isn‘t that the most old-fashioned genre of all?”
“It does seem the most old-fashioned,” he agrees. “But something I’ve realized that I love to do is to go out and meet people and just draw them. So I‘ve really kind of embraced that. And the fact that it is considered old-fashioned I actually like now, whereas before I was always embarrassed by the fact that these paintings looked old, or that people thought they weren’t what they were supposed to be. I almost want to embrace that as much as possible, because I think it makes people feel uncomfortable in a way that I like.”
When Messer talks about making people “uncomfortable,” he‘s really talking about the kind of people who consider art primarily in terms of progression. (As Foer pointed out in his article in Modern Painters, Messer isn’t looking for the next thing. He‘s looking for the thing.) The judge in the Carl Andre case wouldn’t have been made uncomfortable by Messer‘s work. Nor, for that matter, would the average member of L.A.’s film community, where Messer has found some clients. Ben Stiller recently commissioned him to paint a double portrait of his parents for their wedding anniversary, and Messer purchased his house with the money he earned painting two gigantic murals for Twentieth Century Fox. Despite bucking the tide, Messer has done quite well for himself -- there‘s a house in which his paintings hang alongside Picasso’s. When he started teaching a course in portrait painting at Yale seven years ago (he is a Senior Painting Critic at the university), some of his peers were embarrassed to see something so quaint as portraiture listed in the university catalog. But seven years on, he‘s still teaching it, and portraiture has started to come back into fashion, if with a self-protectively conceptual bent.