A studio visit with Guus Kemp
Every painter’s studio should look like Guus Kemp’s. Actually, Kemp, an ardent believer that each artist must follow his or her own path, would be the first to dispute that sentence, and he’d be right, but it’s the first thought that hits me as we emerge from the stairs into a world of light, color and explosive gestures. The light, needless to say, came from the east: Kemp paints in the morning, when his body is rested and his mind is fresh, alert and curious.
Every painter’s studio should smell like Guus Kemp’s, too – thought No. 2 as we immerse ourselves more fully into what, for any lover of oil paint, has to be the ultimate aromatherapy session. The walls and floors are lined with the Dutch-born, Houston-based painter’s latest canvases, all large, all thickly encrusted with viscous dollops, slabs, gobs, each drying at its own languid pace. The slow drying time isn’t just a byproduct of Kemp’s almost hedonistic love of oil’s lusciousness; it also guarantees that Kemp is always surrounded by his own work, recharging the same energies that fuel its creation.
“I hate naked rooms,” he says. “They’re cold.”
As we step out into the warm January evening and crack open beers – this is Houston, after all, and the same eastern orientation that makes Kemp’s studio perfect for painting in the morning makes the adjacent porch perfect for relaxing at dusk – I bring up the recent Jules Olitski retrospective that appeared at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Critics enjoy goading artists into trash-talking about other artists, so I mention that, for me, the Olitski survey had inadvertently served as a case study in the limits of acrylic – that the more painterly the supposedly post-painterly Olitski tried to make his canvases, no matter how ingenious his technical solutions, the more acrylic’s stubborn lack of sensuousness seemed to come between them and me as a viewer.
Kemp doesn’t take the bait on Olitski – each painter must find his own path, remember? – but surprises me by saying that he struggled with acrylic for years.
“It never really happened for me,” he says of his travails with water-based paints. “I couldn’t get the body I can with oil. I was so frustrated with acrylic. I would mix it with plaster of Paris, but it dries in three or four minutes, and when it dries the color fades.”
In late 2008, Kemp, who had no formal art education but hails from a family of painters and grew up surrounded by modern art, switched to oil, marking a turning point not only in his practice but his career. His first oil painting sold immediately, and veteran Houston artist and curator Dan Mitchell Allison gave Kemp a show at his respected Naü-haus Gallery, launching a trajectory that has included exhibitions in New Orleans and San Antonio as well as brisk sales during Kemp’s solo presentation in Zoya Tommy Contemporary’s booth at the Houston Fine Art Fair.
Whatever his difficulties with acrylic, there’s no question Kemp has found the viscosity and heft he craves in oil – so much so that he’s obliged to paint with the canvas lying flat instead of resting upright on an easel lest the craggy masses of paint, which can resemble anything from overabundant frosting to cruciferous vegetables to geological formations, slide down the canvas. He works large for related reasons: Diminutively scaled supports can’t contain the sweeping, decisive gestures with which he lays down paint, using knives to scoop, swoop, smear and sculpt his material. (If that material includes what Kemp calls “crud” – the skin that paint begins to develop after sitting out on the palette – so be it; he’ll use the crud to add still more complexity to his surfaces.)
Height, too, is important: “If the canvas is too high, the stroke of my arm gets limited,” he says. “And I tried painting on the ground, but it totally didn’t work. When you’re sitting, you’re limited in how you can move your body.” At waist level, however, Kemp is free to keep circling the canvas, laying down each stroke in response to the conditions created by the last stroke, ultimately fixing the painting’s orientation by placing a Texas star at the bottom center.
Yet for all the freedom Kemp has painstakingly carved out for himself – staking out the light and space needed to allow for maximum spontaneity, keeping the studio lavishly stocked with paint so that he never faces a restriction on his choices imposed by running out of a color – he is keenly aware of the state of “unfreedom” once described by Philip Guston as an abstract painting progresses toward completion.
“The more a piece gets defined, the more careful you have to be,” Kemp says. “The worst thing you can do is to paint more than is needed.” In a similar vein, during the past 18 months or so he has begun limiting his colors as he deepens his explorations of their individual characteristics. “Colors have certain personalities, and that’s what I like to play with,” he says. Lemon yellow is a “girly, smiley” color, while Prussian blue is as serious as the name implies.
“By painting a lot, you start feeling the colors. Does that make sense?” he asks, before shrugging at his own question. “Even if it doesn’t make sense, it’s how I paint. Everyone needs to find their own way.”
– DEVON BRITT-DARBY
The former art critic for the Houston Chronicle, Devon Britt-Darby is the visual arts editor of Arts + Culture Houston magazine.