Watches of the Night
All art is the chronicle of a haunting, in the same way that every narrative is at least in part a
ghost story: Through sudden surprise or gradual recognition we begin to remember something
of the origins of our strange lives, bounded and dwarfed by the towers of an eternity from
which we are only briefly exiled. The whole broad sea of time is our true home, the deeps from
which we have lately made our way onto a strand of present moments.
There is a strain in contemporary American art that seems haunted as much by the future as
by the past – but haunting knows no tense, and it’s more that history has changed its flow; we’
re all at a bend in the river. Floating on the water are petals of flowers with an unfamiliar scent,
different from any we know; blazoned in the sky are marvels glimpsed in moments of elation or
despair. Maybe those who believe the earth is hollow, that the sky is a shadow on a bowl, know
something that reason cannot.
Stephen Kasner’s paintings are like skeleton keys to a room beyond that sky, where the
children of the beginning wait for the real to come home again. A visual poet, he uncovers,
rather than depicts, eternal figures stamped in the mind before it became flesh, engraved like
a song in the howling grooves of each human fate. Kasner recalls, and helps us to recall, what
it is to be enchanted, cursed, paralyzed, enthralled, what it is to be a child and discern the
cracks and wounds in the world.
One underlying use for narrative as a web-like logical structure is to bind and sooth those
wounds of everyday experience. But I would like to talk about the ways that Kasner’s art aims
to be both the gauze and the wound, the comment and the thing itself. His imagery persists
beyond process, so that the various methods and materials of art making become less like
tools of depiction and more like the prodding of sharp instruments. They search for a kind of
pain that lies at the edge of pleasure and is the living skin, the nerve of a reality that underlies
all searching, journeying, storytelling. They find this breathing, suffering, reality suspended still
in a torn web of fairy tale and nightmare.
Often Kasner shows us only the head of a nameless songbird, a dark, round, sleek shape,
damp with the fog that surrounds it. Its beak tends to be curved, like a crescent moon. One ink
drawing is titled Self Study and reveals a being with this typical bird visage. It is seated facing
the viewer’s left, a gown with multiple scalloped edges billowing below the waist. A disembodied
hand crawls up its shoulder and a nervous haze of overspray spreads through the space
behind the figure, like smoke.
As in many of Kasner’s paintings and drawings, there are curtains framing this snapshot-like
study of sudden presence. We are privileged to attend a drama conducted by the night itself,
in which we are instructed in the language of certain forces. They flicker, personified, fluttering
like the flags of an extinct army, shaking their severed limbs, half dissolved by starlight and
Kasner travels to remote areas of the mind. There are things he provides for himself and the
viewer for these journeys into and out of the painted surface; though they are neither supplies
nor companions, but are as much discovered as carried -- things found, persons searched for,
testimony refined with each successful journey:
There are those birds, for instance, sleek and black as the tide; sometimes just one appears,
as a familiar; at other times a flock swirls around an enigmatic light.
There is a vessel, a vortex spinning the stars like a vase spewing flowers; or like the pox of a
And the flowers themselves — not flowers as we know them but beautiful abrasions rubbed
into the inks of time, proffered by shadow.
The Man appears at certain key moments, whether priest or devil, goblin or a face to the great,
devouring Vortex ; he serves as an emblem of all presence.
And occasionally there is a glimpse of the Woman, a mutable shape caught between lights, the
penumbra of desire.
I’ve walked in cemeteries all my life, mindful of the dead waiting for the universal clock to wind
down or break, just a few feet underground. Planted at intervals in the close-shorn grass,
headstones protrude in long rows or orderly family groups. Everywhere I step across the
shards of biological machines that once were self-contained worlds; that were myself.
Near the Cleveland Institute of Art where Kasner studied in the early 1990’s, the curving roads
and footpaths of Lakeview Cemetery gradually wind up the gentle slope of a great escarpment,
high above the level plain of the city. Designed during the last half of the nineteenth century,
Lakeview is an idyllic garden for the dead, a park with enormous tulip trees rising from patches
of ivy, with hoary wild plum here and there and sometimes patches of bare earth in dry
seasons, where groundskeepers left a pile of oak leaves too long past autumn. If on a sunny
day a visitor’s attention wanders, it’s possible to become quickly, completely lost. Paths curl
around obelisks like a game of snakes and ladders and one mausoleum looks much like
Those little temples, as abstract in their way as a child’s picture of a house, fascinate me. A
product of slightly crazed human industry as ancient in origin as our oldest stories and tombs,
they’re real places for transcendence to lay down its immaterial head. As I stroll I wonder what
it would be like to live in one, or at least to be lost for a day in the maze of paths and little hills
and ranks of stone, and find an open mausoleum, or break open one of the century-old locks
and let myself in; I would rest on the bench-like marble slabs covering the dead. Finally I walk
up to one and peer in, put my nose against the grating that protects the glass and catch my
breath as I dare another face to look back at me.
Kasner’s paintings can be like that. Something lurks in the far corner of a dark room, obscured
by reflections and the haze of our own breath. Or are these the mediums that animate it? The
artist provides us with layers to look through, dimensions to sift so that we have a better
chance of seeing what he means us to see. Even in those works where the figurative elements
are most obscure, the underlying source of their unusual power is always an intimation of that
presence, that immanence of power and personality. This is not a matter of depicting anybody
in particular, since Kasner is not telling any particular story. It’s close to the truth to say he is
being this story, if anything, and his paintings are pockets in the garment of everyday life,
hidden among the folds of normal events, where heightened perceptions can be kept safe
from change and loss. Immanence in such paintings is a matter of prolonged process, of
alchemical struggle and incremental shifts accomplished through a practiced activation of
darkness. Perhaps the visible symbols are something like an address, to speed these
messages deep into the older mind where the truest dreams and best monsters stir.
Walking again at twilight one evening, in the wooded area that borders a man-made lake not
far from Lakeview Cemetery, the path cuts though a stand of mixed hardwood trees, bending
into the green a few dozen yards ahead. I turn and look behind me, almost startled though
nothing has happened, feeling that anything could appear from just beyond the verge of those
slight curves that block my vision. Suspense, or at least tense anticipation, shadows the acts of
stopping, of turning, or of moving on. As T. S. Eliot put it, “Here you can neither stand, or lie,
Kasner’s paintings are also like that. They wait, having situated themselves between now and
then as carefully as a hunter in a blind; unless it may be that they are the hunted. Toward the
end of the nineteenth century Sigmund Freud wrote in his Theory of Dreams that the artist is a
man who has turned away from reality because he can’t make peace with it, but that he finds
his way back, molding fantasies into new realities. This is a tale (or part of a tale) older than
civilization. Not only artists, but every seeker journeys into the waters of being in search of a
cure for death, a balm for our sense that “reality” is insufficient and limits our native infinity
unpardonably. Kasner goes to his canvas like a man going down to the ocean for a midnight
swim, as all dreamers do, seeking many things, identity and freedom among them.
There are only a relative handful of important artists who have explored midnight in just this
way over the past two or three hundred years, but the lineage is nevertheless complex and
distinguished. In literature a surprising number have been Americans: Poe and Hawthorne, of
course, but also popular contemporary novelists of real genius like Stephen King and Anne
Rice. Among painters there was the incomparable Albert Pinkham Ryder, and at present Ross
Blechner. But it is necessary to return to fin de siecle France to find a clear context for Kasner’
s imagery. The symbolist Odilon Redon’s orb-studded etchings, where eyeballs and faces float
in the nether skies of a visionary world, is the most obvious precursor to Kasner’s highly
atmospheric, uncanny approach. Redon’s work was fully described in the pages of J. K.
Huysman’s novel A Rebours, usually translated as Against Nature, which in turn inspired Oscar
Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and later British novels about spiritual darkness. Writing
from 1930 into the 1960’s, Charles Williams and others of the so-called “Inklings” group, which
included C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, described a world at risk, threatened by Satanic
powers. In fact, from Bram Stoker to Dan Brown, such subjects have loomed large in every
medium from film to coffee table literature.
But despite all these works and nearly a century of surrealist efforts that also delve into realms
of fantasy and the illogic of dream, Kasner’s precursors and influences are nearly identical with
Redon’s: Goya and Fuselli, Bosch and of course William Blake all come to mind. One more
might be mentioned, whose paintings also hung in the exotic fictional home of Huysman’s
morbidly effete protagonist le Duc Jean des Esseintes (a character inspired by Poe’s Roderick
Usher): the noted symbolist painter Gustave Moreau, whose jewel-like canvases depicting
visionary worlds populated by sphinxes and hermaphrodites seem to exude an aroma of myrrh.
Other contemporaries of Redon like the German Franz Von Stuck also explore related themes.
But it is the more recent student of anguish and transformation, Francis Bacon, who, after
Redon, seems closest to Kasner. As one of the select group of mid-twentieth century artists
(Nathan Oliveira, Alberto Giacometti, Leon Golub, and to a lesser extent fellow “School of
London” painters Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossuth, and Lucian Freud) who explored a similar
idea of human presence, Bacon searched throughout his tormented life for the “ghost in the
machine,” in the 1949 phrase of his contemporary, the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle. And it
was Bacon, far more than any painter of the human figure before or since, who insisted most
cogently on the procedural nature of this search. In an interview with the art critic David
Sylvester he remarked:
You know in my case all painting…is accident…It transforms itself by the actual paint. I use
very large brushes, and in the way I work I don’t in fact know very often what the paint will do,
and it does many things which are very much better than I could make it do. Is that an
accident? Perhaps one could say it’s not an accident, because it becomes a selective process
which part of this accident one chooses to preserve. One is attempting, of course, to preserve
the vitality of the accident and yet preserve a continuity…
What has never yet been analyzed is why this particular way of painting is more poignant than
illustration. I suppose because it has a life completely of its own. It lives on its own, like the
image one is trying to trap; it lives on its own…
Again and again in his interviews with Sylvester, Bacon talks about the near-impossibility of this
kind of painting, stressing the crucial difference between that and “story-telling,” distinguished
by planning and deliberate depiction. In our conversations over the past thirteen years, Kasner
also has often complained of the difficulty that this kind of work entails, and as an artist with
similar ambitions I know what he means. Everything is a danger to the impossible disequilibrium
that such works attempt. As the painter tries to conjure an equivalence of real things from mute
materials, sometimes a flicker of life seems to twitch in the pile of accumulated marks and
splashes on paper or canvas, like a voice crying beneath rubble. The temptation is to dig
faster, to push for more and more life, for louder cries – but often such redoubled efforts only
ruin the piece. In many areas of life it is of critical importance to know when to stop, but in the
case of such rude conjuring stopping can be the most important thing of all. Or at other times
the painter is convinced that he has uncovered a truly vital image and throws down his tools
too soon, only to become disillusioned and paint over the imposture in despair.
Every kind of art is at bottom a type of transposition, not unlike language and mathematics.
Musical notes and lines on paper are much more like tracks, though, clues about living things
left pressed in the earth or hanging in the air. Their basis is more physical then conceptual,
and the message they carry has more potential impact as body blow than brain teaser. That
hasn’t stopped several generations of ambitious artists and critics from drafting art as a sort of
quarter back for philosophy, using its muscle to carry a variety of epistemological concepts
down the field of discourse. Painting in particular may be better suited for other tasks,
however. Certainly Kasner thinks so.
Consider, for instance, the shamanistic nature of much artistic practice, so evident in the kind
of work he does. Incomparably more ancient than the European panting to which he is heir, is
the place where Kasner goes when he paints, where the riddle is posed and the answers
reside, mixed as always in pigment and charcoal. It is of great significance for Kasner and
anyone who uses them, that those materials, scavenged from river banks and scooped from
the fire pit, are of immemorial antiquity. Drawings made from almost the same substances
persist in caves throughout Europe and Africa, so old that, like the Bradshaw paintings in
Australia’s Kimberly Region, they’ve fused with rock. For countless generations our ancestors
sought guidance, inspiration, and deliverance from the realms of dream and night, and it is
surely vain to suppose that we have changed in the few brief millennia that civilization records.
This pictorial art that Kasner essays with every stroke and line and smear is among the oldest
human cultural activities of which we have clear evidence, a part of homo sapiens, bred in the
bone. What does it mean, after all, that we find those primordial paintings beautiful?
I met Stephen Kasner in 1993, under circumstances that I think shed some light on his
character both as a person and as an artist. It was the year of his graduation from the
Cleveland Institute of Art and he had arranged to present a show of his own work at an
unusual venue – and in most unusual company.
The place was called The Idea Garage, the brainchild of well known painter, sculptor and
instructor at CIA, Ed Mieczkowski. Located off Euclid Avenue, and abutting the eastern
boundary wall of Lakeview Cemetery, the gallery/garage was adjacent to Mieczkowski’s studio.
Over the past few seasons the barn-like interior had served as temporary home to several
experimental student projects.
All of those paled, however, in comparison to Kasner’s. For a period of many months the
young artist had entered into an extraordinary correspondence with some of the most
dangerous men in the world, exchanging letters with Charles Manson, Henry Lee Lucas and
“Nightstalker” Richard Ramirez, among others; he’d even spoken on the phone on many
occasions with John Wayne Gacy, developing a cordial long distance relationship with the killer
clown. The conversations continued long past the exhibition’s run, all the way up to Gacy’s
execution in May, 1994.
All of these men had sent him their drawings and paintings from the depths of high security
prisons, a selection of works in various media which Kasner duly exhibited late in the same
year, alongside his own paintings and those of a fellow CIA graduate, Vaughn Bell in a show
titled simply Human. It was the ultimate “outsider” show. As Kasner’s press releases got
around to the various media, a flurry of national interest in the project arose. No doubt Kasner
had hoped for some of this attention, and enjoyed the sheer madness of it all as
correspondents from Newsweek and the Washington Post descended on the old garage with
its cracked cement floor. Yet I’m certain these things aren’t really what attracted Kasner to the
To be Art with a capital A, lines need not only to be drawn, but crossed. Partly this sense of
transgression, of sins committed or authorities defied, is a personal matter. Each of us has a
set of interior boundaries that fence off the possible from the unthinkable, and it may be that
artists have a particularly clear sense of such limits. In any case, at a time when art is rarely a
serious force for political change, the avant-garde has long since turned inward. Outsider
works challenge the trained practitioner to rephrase the basic questions of contemporary art.
What, after all, is “Insider” art? In what way does the discourse of art schools and galleries
earn its privilege? It’s easy to dismiss the work of psychotics, especially newsworthy
psychotics guilty of sickening crimes, dark celebrities adopted by their time as resident
grotesques. It seems only sensible to regard such art as either motivated by a twisted desire
for further notoriety, or simply as bad art. And no doubt it is both. But still, there is another
point of view.
Transgressions, art crimes so to speak, are at the heart of what the best and most ambitious
artists commit as they search for an effective method. From Prometheus to the latest aesthetic
rebel in the Saatchis’ pantheon of bad boys and girls, artists and critics have believed that a
sufficiently bold, cunning, or offensive act may cheat the impoverished destiny that keeps us
from the fire of truth. A governing principle of modernity (and even the Romans had a notion of
what was modern) is that new creative space must be cleared somehow, so that fresh
perceptions can define coming generations; this is one of the great cultural necessities. But it’s
not easy – or at least, like any crime, not easy to get away with. The pitfalls are much the same
for the artist and the novice thief or murderer. Clumsy attempts are quickly discovered and
removed from the population. Successful transgressions are usually a matter of bringing
something judged to be outside the sphere of fine arts discourse, dripping and hissing into the
confines of gallery or museum. Hence Marcel Duchamp and his urinal, Damien Hirst and his
embalmed animals. The initial shock value soon becomes an incurable wound. We may have
bounced back from Hirst already, but the damage caused by Duchamp goes on. Every new
generation since his 1917 tour de force has understood that anything can be art, and anything
that is tacitly excluded from aesthetic discourse must eventually be carried, kicking and
screaming into the temple. The philosopher Michel Foucault of course grasped this central fact
better than anyone: the excluded, the disenfranchised, the despised are the food of aesthetic
and political progress alike.
Therefore, nobody belongs in a gallery context more than Charles Manson. Whether this is at
all true in a broad sense, whether there is any innate visual or spiritual power in his drawings
and paintings that merits appreciation (and many have considered Manson and others in
Kasner’s exhibit to be highly gifted individuals), is not really the point of this story. That it
occurred to a young painter of darkness to bring the heart of darkness itself into the cradle of
his own fledgling life in the arts, is. Kasner rarely refers to these events now, after more than a
decade of further explorations in his own richly textured world of materials and portents. But
the level of commitment that the show demonstrated continues to say much about the extreme
nature of his work.
I use the word grotesque above to describe the serial killers’ place in the American nightmare,
and this points to yet another way to understand both that early exhibit and the archetypal
dance of images in the whole of Kasner’s painted world. Grotteschi were late classical statues
of deformed beings, re-discovered during the Renaissance in the ruins they were made to
decorate. They quickly became part of a philosophical conversation that continues to this day,
about the nature of art and its function in different societies. As symbolist art flourished in the
wake of earlier Romantic novels, poems, and lives, influenced by Blake and Coleridge, Hugh
Walpole, Mary Shelley, E. T. A. Hoffman, Charles Maturin, and many others including Victor
Hugo and the essayist and art critic John Ruskin, the role of distortion in the arts became ever
larger and more indispensable. Such archetypal freaks as Frankenstein’s monster (Mary
Shelley’s subtitle for Frankenstein was A Modern Prometheus) were conceived as a critique of
human reason, and grotesques in general have often been used as tools for deconstructing
the role of the rational mind, spading over logical constructions in a dig for the buried
treasures of the spirit. Even more than that, they are the ancient spirit of disruption and
discontinuity itself at work, the trickster figures (like the native American Coyote) of shamanistic
societies reminding us how shallow our understanding really is.
* * *
Walking through the cemetery again, this time late in an evening in August, the tombs and
trees fade into the darkness while the dirt path I’ve found seems to glow faintly, though there is
no moon. As the visible retreats, sounds are magnified. The undulating high-pitched whine of
thousands of cicadas grows louder. The lonesome, artificial scene fades into the night against
the scream of the insects’ demented music, and I am briefly marooned in a no-man’s land, a
transient island between the senses. Neither sight nor sound alone, the coming night is an
almost tangible figure kneaded from both, a golem. And again I think of the internal repetitions
and deliberate rhythms of Kasner’s art, of the way its recurring images and singular flourishes
seem to me to rhyme, almost, and pace in circles like lines from obsessive, incantatory poems
by Poe or Coleridge:
The night is chilly, but not dark,
The thin gray cloud is spread on high,
It covers but not hides the sky.
The moon is behind, and at the full;
And yet she looks both small and dull.
The night is chill, the sky is gray;
T’is a month before the month of May,
And the Spring comes slowly up this way.
(Christabel 1798 by S. T. Coleridge)
In the ink drawing titled Figure 1992, for instance, a face disappears, up and back into the
glaring native light of the paper, as if exploding into a condition of grace. The gesture must
mean to say, “Change!” like the startling lines that conclude Rainer Maria Rilke’s 1908 poem
Archaic Torso of Apollo – “There is no place that does not see you. You must change your
life.” The image is a death and a rebirth all in the same immeasurable instant. Deep brownish
blacks defining the figure’s torso in Kasner’s drawing are like the dark body of a tree trunk as it
gives birth to the sky, the gun barrel from which transformation is fired. A few ink blots roll like
sunspots down from the figure’s mouth, and above its right shoulder a curious, looping flight of
airy lines maps the passage of some small, gentle thing, perhaps a soul.
Often in Kasner’s imagery there are echoes, like the chorus of a song – except these are
songs just at the moment they are forgotten, as in between waking and dreaming when the
provisional order of reverie unravels; songs such as the dead might try to sing as they crossed
the river Lethe. The words and sentences and musical phrases pass in and out of focus,
lapsing into silence.
It makes sense that Kasner has been asked to design many CD covers over the past decade
or so. Like everything he does, they’re just another occasion to mount a search for a passage
through the night, but they also take advantage of the affinity his percussive drawing
technique has to music -- drum solo spatters lending traction to brief melodic arabesques An
image he made for the band Trephine, for example, is nothing but pure Kasner, and I find it to
be one of his most startlingly beautiful images. It’s an ink wash study of a head, and typically
the artist makes much of a very small gesture: The eyes are downcast and the face is also
angled downward, though only slightly, so that the high forehead bulges forward. Just at the
uneven, blotted hairline that marks the forehead’s disappearance into various levels of spotted
darkness, are two large holes, like bullet holes. They define the figure as dead, and his large,
curving lips as rictus, and yet this face seems … not dead. It’s like the moon, of course, its
eyes and mouth and nostrils only shifts in geological make-up, illumined by reflected light. It is
an illusion, but the sort of illusion that is far more real, more true, than any solid object. Each of
Kasner’s works is a search for the face and form of our indwelling darkness. Like pleasure or
pain, they tingle and peak and fade, touching, lingering, slipping away from the thing they
seek, taking us in and out of an uneasy sleep in the watches of an endless night.
[Stephen Kasner, Scapegoat Publishing 2007]