Five questions to Michael Kempen

Five questions to Michael Kempen

Five questions to Klavs Loris Reading Five questions to Michael Kempen 6 minutes Next Five questions to Joseph Reyes

Michael Kempen is an abstract painter from Milwaukee, WI. His high contrast, hard-edge forms are deliberately ambiguous, allowing space for each viewer to work out their own interpretation and infuse it with personal meaning.Tell us your story, why did you become an artist?

Since childhood I’ve been an obsessive drawer, but it was all very ephemeral. I had drawing pads, but there were also a lot of doodles in the margins of notebooks and on scrap pages. I would save large pieces of cardboard to paint on with white interior house paint. My output was continuous — if not sometimes borderline compulsive — and I deeply enjoyed it. But even with all that interest, I never got much joy out of typical drawing/art classes. I’ve never aspired to total realism. I couldn’t make the jump from what I liked about creating on my own to the traditional aspects of art education. In hindsight I realize it was all supposed to build up my basic skill set in the craft, but at the time I just wasn’t interested in accurately rendering a bowl of fruit in smeary graphite. 

Since graduating college, be it through writing or design, strategic communication has been the ultimate goal of my professional output as a Creative Director. In contrast, my art practice frees me from the constraints of creating only what I can systematically explain/justify. It allows me to play in a world of messy and crude abstraction — a realm of art I’ve always enjoyed — while working with forms and relations ranging from somewhat vague to deliberately ambiguous. I want to paint things that are just something enough for people to wonder what they are, but aren’t anything enough for them to be able to tell with total certainty.

When you create a new work, how do you go about it? What comes first?

Sometimes the idea comes out of nowhere. As it usually happens somewhere or sometime inconvenient, they first appear as hastily rendered sketches on whatever is available.

Other times I go into the studio with a fragment of an idea. I probably start with a drawing 60-70% of the time. I’ll take a pencil or crayon or paint stick and run through a dozen sheets of paper in quick succession. Drawing the same thing, but it comes out different each time. It’s the simplest way to land on some of the more subtle aspects of shapes and their relation. Sometimes I also cut out paper shapes and arrange them to see if anything comes from it — probably stealing a bit from Matisse there, but it’s fun.

Sometimes it’s the whole thing. Sometimes it’s as simple as an interesting curve or corner. Ultimately, all these little things become studies and reference points for executing the final painting. What can you tell us about your studio, what makes it special to you and how does it influence the way you work?

It’s in my basement. For me, proximity is paramount. Being a space within the home makes it feel like it’s ingrained into my daily existence, rather than this separate thing I go off to do. If I have an idea I can run down and sketch it out. Even if I’m not able to go deep, I can get things all lined up for the next time. If the space between an idea and action is only a few stairs away, less variables can creep in. Plus there’s a VCR hooked to an old CRT TV and easy access to beer and snacks. I suppose those can sometimes be variables in their own way.Is there a work of art in your life that has especially impressed you?

After college I had been dabbling in painting as a medium when I saw one of Frank Stella’s black paintings in person. I should probably know the title, but I just remember it was a large rectangle in portrait orientation. Being able to experience it as this immense whole, but also take in the details just inches from my face — it was multidimensional in ways I wasn’t expecting. The visual concept of those paintings are quite simple and direct and, when rendered in a book or on screen, they appear so monolithic. Unfortunately, it also overshadows a lot of the nuances and details you see up close. It felt human. The canvas captured the act of executing the idea. It was at that moment that I knew I was all-in on panting.

There’s a different Frank Stella painting — one of his large, shaped canvases — in the Milwaukee Art Museum I go visit whenever I’m there. In both color combination and shape it’s one of the better representations of its series, but what I really appreciate is, on a closer inspection, it shows a lot of signs of how it was made — pencil lines, semi-transparent washes of color showing layering, odd cuts and staples in the canvas to accommodate the atypical shape, etc.

Reach to the stars: where will you be in 5 years?

The older I get the more appreciation I have for slow, sustained growth. I can see how the little steps I took years ago have led to the things I have now. So I won’t complain if in five years I’m “just” five years better at what I do. Hopefully interest in my work will grow congruently.

That being said, I do have one thing I’d like to throw out into the universe: The internet has been kind to me as an artist (I’ve met a lot of great people from all over), but I’d like to exhibit in more physical, in-person settings. Presenting a collection to be viewed as a single story within a space, to build an atmosphere digital presentation doesn’t fully allow for. The whole becomes more than the sum of its parts and ultimately is more immersive for the viewer. I have some of the concepts outlined, but I’d like to find the right space. Photos by: Kenneth Møller

Learn more about the artist: