written by Reggie Michael Rodrigue
On November 21, 1980, an unnatural disaster took place in South Louisiana. It took place in a small and scenic body of water called Lake Peigneur near the Gulf Coast. A crew on a Texaco oil drilling rig on Lake Peigneur was drilling down to a depth of 1,230 feet. Suddenly, the drill seized up and, in their attempts to free it, the crew turned an 11 ft deep fresh water lake into a 1,230 ft deep salt water lake. They had accidentally drilled into a salt mine. The shocker is that the crew and Texaco were aware of the mine. At the time, it was still being mined. Upon loosening the drill, the crew created a hole between the lake and the salt mine. The water from the lake began leaking into the mine. As the water continued to leak, it began to dissolve the salt and weaken the structure of the mine. This lead to collapse. A sink hole was created, which in turn, created a whirlpool in the lake which sucked every structure in the lake (Lake Peigneur was dotted with rigs) and much of the surrounding land into the whole. There was a canal which connected the Lake to The Gulf of Mexico. Up until that day, water always flowed from the lake to the gulf. The sink hole/whirlpool created by the errant drill reversed the flow of the canal, pulling salt water from the Gulf of Mexico into Lake Peigneur. Miraculously, all the men on site at Lake Peigneur that day survived, including the Texaco drilling crew and all the miners in the salt mine.
I relate the story to you in order to raise a point: Man is an thoughtlessly aggressive son of a bitch. The story of Lake Peigneur is proof. Man just takes, takes, takes until disaster strikes.
Much of the work currently on view at Gallery 549 in Downtown Lafayette, LA concerns the aggressive hubris of man. The work is from artist Dutch Kepler. He has created a suite of paintings which fuse a mystical narrative about man’s drives and his exploitation of nature with the aesthetic concerns of Abstract Expressionism shot through the lens of a Pop sensibility.
Kepler’s current works are somewhat of a revelation. While much of his work in the past has involved a running engagement with the natural world in the form of depictions of animals and landscapes in a loose, Pop style, Kepler’s new work is deeper and more resonant. Kepler loosened his tether to mimesis, and in the process created works as bold and aggressive as his current content. Gone are the easy readings that go along with recognizable depictions. They have been replaced by a challenge to not only read symbols, but also gestures.
The predominant symbol in most of these works is the arrow. It is a symbol of both conscious and unconscious drives. It is a symbol of phallic aggression, obsessive need or want, and penetration. The arrow is the spear, as well: the symbol of war and the hunt. It is also, a symbol of virility. In this sense, the arrow becomes the serpent and is made use of in some works that are a bit more illustrative and narrative in structure. Other animals pop up as well. In a limpid painting titled “Septopus,” a depiction of an octupus with only seven tentacles hovers on the bottom of its canvas. With its usual eight legs, the octopus is regarded as a symbol of the perfection of the unconscious, transcending beyond the limits of the personal or the individual. A seven-tentacled octopus seems somewhat less than perfection. The painting exudes an air of dreamy narcissism. Gazing into the watery work and, specifically, the “eyes” of the octopus, sets off a subtle recognition of self, similar to looking into a reflecting pool. Other animals that make their way into Kepler’s works on exhibit are two strikingly contemporary and impressive depictions of two Louisiana denizens: a crab and a crawfish, both up in arms and in defensive postures. The crawfish is all wispy gesture, and reads as both an icon and a phantasm. The crab presents a much more graphic face made up of camouflage, rising up from swirling “blades of grass.” The cosmic symbol of the crab is often associated with self-preservation, sensitivity and emotionality.
Moving past the symbols, what is most striking about much of his current work is the insistent, gestural profusion taking place on it. The energy and brashness of the work manifest from a plethora of marks that convey speed and forcefulness. Zips, blobs, streaks, smears, scumbles, scrapings, drips and washes scream the urgent nature of Kepler’s expression. Colored marks jump, pounce and ricochet across the canvas with deKooning-like self assurance and exuberance or Guston-like brutality. The brightness and graphic punch of the works tie in with Kepler’s other profession: Kepler was a former professor of graphic design at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette. Content, symbol, color and gesture collide and become the unified subject of the work. It is all pure, primal instinct and take, take, take. Arrows bear down on the meta-landscape like the thunderbolts of the Greek god Zeus or the drilling element that forced the disaster at Lake Peigneur. Man’s need to exploit nature is laid bare in a painting like “Double Dip,” which is pictured above. Ecological disaster becomes a wonky, science experiment in one painting. The image on it reminded me of pictures of factory run-off being pumped into bodies of water. Some of the paintings, take on a more cosmic and mystical bent. These are generally the ones in which the arrow becomes the serpent, and man’s drives take on a more ideal aspect. In these works, gesture generally becomes subordinate to symbol.
All in all, the works Kepler exhibits in the show allude to a compendium of ideas about man’s place in the world that is both transcendental and hellish. It is cosmic and motionless with eternity in some works. In others, it is fragmented and frenetic with palimpsests of instinctual drives, unconscious motives and desire that rear their heads in the river of time and materiality. It is up to the viewer to make something of it all - to maybe form an opinion about what kind of place he or she occupies in the world – to wonder about whether one treads lightly on the world like the serpent or bears down on it like the drill. However, one thing is certain: with this body of work, Kepler has tread across a hallowed threshold, the one that separates mere artists from the masterful ones in full control of their titanic expression. That is a move up, rather than down.
The solo exhibition “Dutch Kepler” is on view at Gallery 549, 549 Jefferson St., Lafayette, LA 70501 through the month of October until the week of 2nd Saturday Artwalk in November. To arrange a viewing, call 1.337.593.0796