Barbara Kassel combines the classical and the contemporary in a unique way. The artist, who splits her time between a loft in New York City’s Tribeca neighborhood and a home in West Tisbury, has spent a good deal of time in Italy, and the influence is obvious in her work. Mosaics, frescoes, and other types of antiquity show up over and over again. Furthermore, Ms. Kassel has a fondness for allegory; her work features symbolic items that tell a story that goes beyond the scene depicted.
In her upcoming show at A Gallery, Ms. Kassell will exhibit samples of paintings from three different series — “Mosaics,” “Frescoes,” and “Vineyard Scenes.” Each series actually juxtaposes elements of at least one other of the styles. For example, a huge mosaic of a Garden of Eden scene is used as a backdrop for a realistic portrayal of a table set with an assortment of everyday objects. The frescoes also make an appearance in contemporary scenes, where they sometimes seem to interact with their modern surroundings, as in “Off
Kilter,” where the Romanesque image of a saint seems to be entering an NYC apartment featuring a tabletop setting fronting a cityscape.
Even the Vineyard scenes — interiors and still lifes — are rife with metaphorical symbols, many of which make an appearance again and again in Ms. Kassel’s work. At a recent visit to her studio, situated on a quiet lot in West Tisbury, the artist discussed some of her symbolism. “I have sort of characters that I use a lot working from life,” she said. One of these — the overturned chair — appears frequently in her work. “The chair is something very stable but the next minute it’s over; there’s the loss of stability, but also the possibility of it being righted.”
Other favorite images include coffee cups and glasses, often spilling their contents, figs and fig leaves, playing cards, pads and pencils and, especially in the Vineyard paintings, shells. While she doesn’t necessarily attach a literal interpretation to her symbology, Ms. Kassel finds herself drawn to images that imply virtues or vices, hope or misfortune.
Recent national and worldwide events have inspired work that often depicts or foreshadows destruction. In her series of small square frescoes, the artist combines everyday scenes with often violent imagery. “I like to juxtapose ordinary pleasures with impending disasters,” she says pointing to an image of an apple pie sitting in front of a mosaic of a tornado scene; another shows a mosaic volcano erupting behind a table set with a coffee cup and bonbons. The Titanic approaching an iceberg looms ominously in front of a genteel afternoon tea still life.
Predator and prey are images that also turn up frequently in Ms. Kassel’s mosaics, which combine traditional Italian symbols with other favored items of the artist’s, like houses, trees, fish and scales. Of the predation theme, Ms. Kassel says, “It’s a commentary on the world. Each needs the other. Some people are fascinated by the predators, some with the prey.”
Images flying through the air as if in a storm spring up often in the artist’s work. “In this particular year I see things as falling apart — things spinning in space,” says Ms. Kassel. “Even when things are like that, I strive to make something compelling and beautiful to look at. I don’t respond to ugly.” Although certain themes can be unsettling, the overall work is never dark or hopeless.
Although she rarely uses a grid to lay out her compositions, Ms. Kassel discusses terms like dynamic symmetry and the golden mean as influencing her approach to work. “Dynamic symmetry has to do with a pleasing set of proportions,” she explains. “It’s how trees grow and how shells are formed. It’s very mathematical. With me, I think it’s internalized.”
Ms. Kassel’s impressive résumé includes earning an MFA in painting from Yale University, inclusion in the 1984 Venice Biennale, and shows at
galleries in New York City and all over the country. Previously she was represented on the Vineyard by the former Craven Gallery, but she hasn’t shown her work on the Island for almost a decade.
Recently the artist did two residencies in Tuscany, and she has traveled to Italy on many occasions. She has a great fondness for the Renaissance and pre-Renaissance painters, and her allegorical approach to work mirrors that of some of the early artists.
In her artist’s statement Ms. Kassel writes, “My impulses are more metaphorical than realistic, and I often mix various landscapes, interiors, and still lifes. Working this way allows a fluid play between objects and their surroundings. In every painting I hope to establish a dynamic balance between the aesthetic and the emotional.”
Ms. Kassel’s exhibit is up from August 4 to August 24 at A Gallery, 8 Uncas Ave., Oak Bluffs. Visit agallerymv.com.