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

On the fifth floor of the Calhoun Building in the Lyn-Lake district of Minneapolis, above the improv classes, dance studios, and screen-writing seminars of the third and fourth floors, and far above the body piercings, martial-arts training, and traffic sturm und drang of the ground floor, Jason Kassel has turned a corner in his life. Kassel, a former Ph.D. student of philosophy at the University of Minnesota, has given up a longtime pursuit of the academic life to found his own artistic movement, which is represented in the new studio he has opened, the Eat Bugs Gallery.

"New Expressionism," says Kassel on a recent hot July afternoon in his small unair-conditioned space, "is as much a philosophy of life as a way of understanding our art. My philosophy celebrates primal emotions, honesty, dialogue, open communication, and connection with others. It's through this connection that humans feel most fulfilled. It's a way of thinking that goes back to the Greeks."

A slightly stout man of 30 years with a head of light hair cut close to his round head, Kassel smiles with childlike merriment as he launches into a practiced monologue. He is obviously savvy about modern communication, wielding such weapons of the computer age as e-mail, an Eat Bugs Web site, and a relentless sense of self-promotion that led him to run for Congress in 1998, as well as to take up art without any prior training. Yet Kassel's enthusiasm for his new endeavor seems entirely unaffected. As he speaks, I manage to steal a few glances at the paintings he has hung over every available space on the walls of the gallery's three tiny rooms. Mostly, they are boldly colored items with exuberant, if a bit underdeveloped, daubs of acrylic paint. The imagery that he and his artists employ is rudimentary, even juvenile, consisting primarily of stick figures, flat geometric shapes, symbolic objects, and ghostlike faces. Still, there is a certain intangible spark present in a good number of them.

Kassel stops before the first painting he ever did, which he calls "Man and Woman Worshipping Agni, the Hindu God of Fire." Painted in November of 1997 during a time of heavy study for Kassel, it is a mishmash of sloppy and muddy paint on a piece of large, unstretched canvas.

"One day after reading all day, I went and bought a piece of canvas and some tempera paints and a cheap brush from the hardware store, and I painted this," he says, losing himself in an explanation of who and what the purplish stick people are, and why they are rushing toward a green-gray tree while stick gods "couple" in a brown-blue sky. Kassel makes a number of sweeping hand gestures over the canvas and quickly loses me as well. Unlike some of the more recent work, nothing is particularly distinctive in this painting except the energy of his brushwork.

"This is painted in the Renaissance style," he says.

"I can tell," I quip, which, after a slight pause, causes Kassel to launch into a booming spasm of laughter. We both stand for a moment in front of the painting, and a momentary silence overtakes us. Kassel seems to guess what I am thinking.

"Painting is dead today because the creators have taken the soul out of painting. There are paintings that are far superior technically to these in my gallery," he says, his arm sweeping across the space. "But they lack the vitality and soulfulness of these paintings. If the person moving the brush lacks an inner vitality, then it comes out on canvas. The mass entertainment of our society anesthetizes people, so it makes sense that painters would make soulless work."

He pauses for an instance, then thinks of something else. "How to phrase this? I'm not someone who believes in the idea of progress--having the latest and best. I believe in the notion of personal feelings. The original moment of understanding may carry truths. We may not have to move on. I believe strongly in using expression with an emphasis on the creator's psychology. We [the artists of the New Expressionism] differ in that we're less technical, and self-taught....Therefore, we're free to do what we want."

Kassel goes on for a time about bourgeois attitudes, about the homogeneity of American society, about "The Air Conditioned Nightmare," Henry Miller's 1945 tract on American conventionality, which he cites as an influence, and about the writing of various moral philosophers who inspired him, and the stultifying conformity of the academic world that forced him to give up scholasticism for art. I half expect him to launch into a dissertation on alchemy, the planetary spheres, and all manner of debauchery he has become acquainted with during this time of free exploration, but then, all at once, he is speaking of the business end of New Expressionism.

According to Kassel, there are signs that his message is slowly reaching people. The number of artists who have signed with Kassel has grown recently from three to eight or nine, and artists are beginning to contact him out of the blue about having shows. More to the point, Kassel has sold some work of late, including three paintings on eBay, the Internet auction block, though admittedly his prices are so low--between $100-$200 per painting--that he can hardly cover his overhead costs. Kassel cites several peripheral events--open-mic poetry, trip-hop concerts, and the like--that are helping to keep him afloat as he waits for the trappings of success. Meanwhile, though, he has no illusions about the difficulty of maintaining an art gallery in these trying financial times for artists. And so Kassel keeps compiling his mailing list, sending out press packets, and plugging away at his vision. "My gallery is different, because it's built on New Expressionism and I'm trying to move that," he says.

 

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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