Protecting himself isn’t something Messer worries about anymore. Nor does he feel the need to belong to a school of painting, and he admires the very different kind of work being done on the West Coast by artists such as Charles Ray. There are painters in Los Angeles with whom he could be linked -- the critic and curator Michael Duncan mentions two, John Sonsini and Tom Prosch, who he believes work in a similar vein -- but Messer prefers to see himself as a solo act. When he first came to Los Angeles, no one was painting, he says, and he enjoyed feeling like an outsider. Now that L.A.‘s galleries are filling up with paintings again, he still feels like an outsider. In any case, a lot of the work on view is so stiff and self-conscious it brings to mind an ancient art-world joke: Why did the conceptualist take up painting? Because it seemed like a good idea.
Messer’s work rarely looks self-conscious or overly strategized. In the back-garden shed that serves as his studio (a gloriously paint-encrusted mess), everything you see indicates the presence of a man who simply loves to pick up a brush and go at it. Pinned to a wall is a large piece of canvas divided into two sections of blue. Deep blue at the bottom third, lighter blue above: sea and an endless sky. Afloat in the middle of that sky is an Englishman‘s face, along with the beginning of a neck, a hint that there may or may not be more to come, that the painting may or may not be finished. Alone in the ether -- a head without a body, a human balloon that’s lost its owner -- the face looks civilized, wry, and faintly embarrassed by its predicament. There‘s something perfect about that painting: It’s a feeling captured.
But for now it‘s just one sketch among many, nailed to the wall of a leaky garden shed.