The Birth of the New

Meet Jason Kassel, founder of the Eat Bugs Gallery, inventor of the New Expressionism, and a master in the art of self-invention

 

A few days later on a Saturday evening, the Eat Bugs Gallery opens a new show. Titled "New Expressionist Artists Celebrate the Teachings of Plato," the exhibition primarily consists of the same batch of colorful paintings that I had seen on my earlier visit. And, looking around, I get the feeling that not much ever changes in the gallery; paintings may be shifted sometimes, but most everything else stays the same. This includes the six or seven young people in casual clothes who are sitting around with blasé looks on their faces, trying hard not to listen to the folk singer sitting on the edge of the small raised stage, strumming a guitar and singing loudly into a low microphone. There is a dreamlike quality in the way they fit so easily into the scene.

Meanwhile, a man in oversized headphones, who turns out to be one of Kassel's artists, plays at a soundboard, oblivious to everyone around him. Kassel, in his role as host, is explaining his art movement to a fortyish man in shorts and running shoes. Seeing me, however, Kassel smoothly excuses himself from the man, says hello and shakes my hand, and quickly introduces me to a young woman named Christine Stuhr, saying "This is my most recent artist," before returning to his conversation.

"I've painted before, but I've never shown work in a gallery before," she says nervously in the hallway outside the gallery. We have retreated here to get away from the noise. "Jason is just really open. If you want to paint here, you can. I had never felt that comfortable painting before."

She describes how she brought a mirror to the gallery one day, and Kassel let her use his paints, gave her guidance and space, and offered to hang the finished result in the gallery. The painting itself is passable, a commingling of purple and pinkish swirls, droplets, and blackish handprints on a large mirror. In this show, it neither stands out nor seems incongruous. I ask Christine how the painting relates to the teachings of Plato, and she seems to blanch a bit.

"Um, I'll have to say 'no comment' on that one," she says with a wan smile, looking over my shoulder back into the gallery space. I want to ask her how she was enticed to come to Eat Bugs in the first place, but she excuses herself, apologizing and saying she does not feel well.

Back inside, I survey the crowd some more and wander into one of the gallery's side rooms, where I begin to sift through a stack of about twenty paintings that are propped against one of the walls. One in particular strikes me. Titled "Critics Suck, Do You?" (1999), it is a typical size at three by four feet and is painted in the typical Kassel style. Around a large, green, masklike head in the center are several happy stick figures, a small angry head, multicolored splashes of paint, and snippets of hand-painted text. The background is a violent orange. The words in particular capture my attention--phrases such as "Critics suck," "Fuck the father," and "What's your contingency plan?" that seem to belie Kassel's happier messages about art and community. "It's about self-criticism," he says when I ask about it later. "The way most of us stop ourselves before we even begin something." I am about to ask more about the father bit, but a gallerygoer interrupts us, talking about the recent criticism of art and artists he has overheard from Governor Ventura on his weekly radio show.

"Do you know what Jesse Ventura's definition of art is?" the man asks. "He said this on his last radio show, 'Before you spend $20,000 on your next painting, ask yourself if your governor could have painted this painting. My definition of art is if the governor can do it, then it's not art.'"

He and Kassel laugh at the multiple layers of irony in this, and the conversation shifts for a time. Kassel speaks of his recent visits to New York to talk to gallery owner Mary Boone and his artist-hero Mark Kostabi, both of whom seem to have rebuffed him. "Kostabi wanted me to guarantee him $10,000 to make a visit to my gallery," says Kassel, his face slightly pained. That's a lot of $100 paintings. "And you know what he told me when I interrupted him once? He said, 'Why are you speaking? To speak is to give away, to listen is to acquire. You should not be speaking.'"

Kassel speaks then of Star Tribune arts writer Mary Abbe, who, he says, cut him off when he invited her to visit his gallery, and told him "Eat Bugs" sounded more like a studio than anything. "Why was she so rude? There was no reason for her to be so rude."

The conversation shifts again, and Kassel goes off to seduce other likely candidates, so I decide to make my own escape. The air outside is refreshingly cool compared to the oppressive air in the gallery, and the roar of Lake Street is somehow pleasant after the amplified singing and loud talking. Starting one's own artistic movement is a terrible responsibility, it seems, and those of us who don't suffer such a burden should appreciate how lucky and free we are.

 

Jason Kassel is at Eat Bugs Gallery at 711 W. Lake St., #507, in Minneapolis nearly every day, generally from 9:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m.-10:00 p.m.; (612) 823-1100.

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