December 2, 2015

Meet Dean Kessmann – 2015 Fall SOLOS Artist

As you know, each year AAC showcases regional emerging artist in our semiannual SOLOS exhibitions. This year, with the help of our esteemed jurors Melissa Ho of the Hirschhorn and artist Jefferson Pinder, Dean Kessmann was selected to be among this group of artists.

Dean’s work has been showcased from the East coast to the Midwest, his exhibitions have been reviewed in The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and the St. Louis Dispatch, and he was a Sondheim Semifinalist last year!

In addition to being a working artist he’s also an Associate Professor at George Washington University. In his SOLOS exhibition, Utilitarian Abstraction, Dean delves into commercial packaging in the digital age.

We asked Dean a few questions about his process and what inspired him to bring this body of work to life. Read below, for his answers and see his work in the flesh in our Meyer Gallery.


Installation view of Dean Kessmann's Utilitarian Abstraction in the Meyer Gallery. Photo by Greg Staley.
Installation view of Dean Kessmann’s Utilitarian Abstraction in the Meyer Gallery. Photo by Greg Staley.

In your studio, in life, in your head, in your practice, anywhere: what is your most important/valuable source of inspiration?

It’s hard to isolate a single thing that is the most important source of inspiration.  Also, generally speaking, inspiration does not come from my studio.

More often than not, inspiration comes from the places and things that are part of my day-to-day life.  Aside from my work at AAC, I recently finished a series of photographs taken in my family’s apartment, in particular, photographs of the spaces where the ceiling meets the wall.

Another piece I’m working on was inspired by and is generated from an art history textbook that I borrowed from a colleague, which is related to an early project of mine titled Cover to Cover.

…I often produce work that is meant to complicate the distinction between these two modes of representation by generating images that are simultaneously referential and abstract.

A third project in the beginning stages is inspired by the tons of digital documents from various software programs that I generate or receive on a regular basis.

Aside from the specific examples above, one thing that has remained fairly consistent in my practice is an ongoing interest in the fine line that exists between referential and abstract imagery.

With that in mind, I often produce work that is meant to complicate the distinction between these two modes of representation by generating images that are simultaneously referential and abstract.

What inspired/motivated you to create this body of work?

Installation view of Dean Kessmann's Utilitarian Abstraction in the Meyer Gallery. Photo by Greg Staley.
Installation view of Dean Kessmann’s Utilitarian Abstraction in the Meyer Gallery. Photo by Greg Staley.

The work in Utilitarian Abstraction developed out of the banal process of breaking down cardboard boxes to be placed in the recycling bin.  In this regard, the project is autobiographical in that it paints a selective and subjective picture of my family’s consuming habits at a particular moment in time.

Prior to considering this autobiographical reading of the work, I simply began collecting the printer codes from these boxes because I was visually intrigued by the somewhat standardized, yet surprisingly unique imagery that I was discovering.  The tiny grids of colors and various types of registration marks are used by the printing industry to ensure that the colors remain consistent from box to box and that the text and images remain in focus throughout the printing process, so they exist exclusively to serve a utilitarian purpose.

…Utilitarian Abstraction developed out of the banal process of breaking down cardboard boxes to be placed in the recycling bin.

However, I found myself imagining these utilitarian marks as miniature abstract paintings that had been hidden from view, smuggled into my home via the packaging of ordinary consumer products.

Additionally, I wanted to expose the ways in which the graphic design and printing industries have usurped the visual language of fine art, and vice versa.  Therefore, I decided to dramatically enlarge these printer codes in order to place them into a broader dialogue with contemporary and historical works of art, especially Pop art, Op art, monochromatic painting, and more recent trends in appropriation.

Finally, I hope that this work opens up the possibility for viewers to make newly discovered associations between high art and consumerism through the visual language of popular culture and contemporary notions of abstraction, and asks them to reflect upon the material messiness and tactile nature of ink-stained paper products in a digital age.

Tell us about your process for this exhibition.

These fragments from commercial packaging material are scanned on a high-resolution scanner, and then filtered through a digital environment before being returned to the material world as large-format prints on paper.  On one hand, this digital process resists the auratic status associated with works of art by concealing the hand of the artist, yet the individual characteristics and flaws of the source material have been decidedly retained, instead of being retouched out of the scanned files.

…this digital process resists the auratic status associated with works of art by concealing the hand of the artist, yet the individual characteristics and flaws of the source material have been decidedly retained…

Thus, the final images are nowhere near the perfect digital files from which they are derived; instead, they are messy, a condition that is emphasized even more through the extreme magnification of this imagery.  Through these transformations an odd reversal takes place in regard to the opposition between mechanical reproduction and originality.

The mass-produced commercial imagery that proliferates at an ever-increasing speed is generally far removed from the cache that is afforded unique works of art.  However, the fact that this imagery was rediscovered and has found its way into a gallery setting as unique, one-of-a-kind prints enables the work to subversively reclaim the aura granted to original works of art.


Check out Dean’s work during our regular gallery hours: Wed-Sun, noon to 5 pm at 3550 Wilson Blvd, Arlington VA, and bring yourself and your questions for Dean, and his fellow SOLOS artists, to the gallery talk and closing reception on Dec 12.

Liz Ensz: NO GRIDS NO MASTERS

March 30 - May 26, 2024

NO GRIDS NO MASTERS: a Post-Cartesian Experiment is an exploration and contestation of the grid and the structured set of worldviews that are embedded in it. Incorporating digital and traditional weaving, sculpture, found objects, and transformed cast materials, the installation reflects the artist’s intense engagement with material.

Artist Talk: Clarissa Pezone

Saturday / May 18 / 3pm-4pm

Pushing the possibilities of clay, Clarissa Pezone creates human and animal figures that are lifelike yet suffused with a sense of mystery. At this talk with the artist, she will discuss The Woods of No Name, her solo exhibition on view at the museum through May 26.

Federico Cuatlacuatl: Tiaxcas Intergalácticxs, Topileastronáuticxs

April 6 - May 26, 2024

In experimental film and multimedia installation, Federico Cuatlacuatl explores transborder indigenous Nahua identities. His work envisions indigenous futurity as a means of thinking about history, diasporic legacies, and cultural identities.

CLOSE