Kevin Paulsen’s Desirable Workbook

I have a massive crush on the work of American artist Kevin Paulsen. He’s perhaps best known for his murals and decors for early American houses. But while Paulsen’s schemes reference and honour the work of the naive journeymen painters associated with the period, they simultaneously remain true to his contemporary vision, evidencing the post-modernist’s disposition toward playful reinvention.

It’s a rarity for an artist to be able to pull off this sleight-of-hand, in which the past and present come together in ways unexpected yet plausible. In lesser hands such work would be constrained and rendered staid by the historic requirements, but in Paulsen’s, the results are invigorated by his talent for conjuring the past, while remaining uniquely and creatively himself.

I’ve been taken by a series of recent sketches from one of his workbooks. As far as I can tell they’re rendered in black marker-pens, with colour rubbed in with dry pastel and tonal accents worked in pencil. The workbook has gridded pages, and I don’t know whether the artist favours the ‘marked’ paper because it subverts any sense of the precious, therefore enabling him to work more freely, or because it makes drawings easier to scale-up at a later stage, should they be needed for large paintings or murals. For me the paper adds another layer of interest, with its rigid geometries cutting through the artist’s imaginary landscapes.

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The first drawings are squarish in format, and have a rather sentimental, antebellum tone to them. Here, ruined neo-classical architecture is counterpointed with weeping-willow and poplar trees, against a shimmering sun-scape.

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And below, the European Grand Tour is conjured in an erupting volcano, its fiery discharge reflected in the water. These could be stills from a Lotte Reiniger film, or I could see them being snipped as lacy black papercuts laid against foil backgrounds.

The fisherman is a motif that the artist repeatedly returns to examine. He riffs energetically on diverse themes. One day it may be elaborate, tented pavilions with bunting, the next, masted ships in formal, dance-like  arrangements, their rigging a-flutter with flags. Paulsen loves pennants and flags.

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I recognise what’s going on in the images, as I plunder the past myself. First I make the observed studies to get into the zone, and then comes the flow and invention. Paulsen does the same. These meanderings through romantic landscapes are engaging enough, though they feel as though the artist is just flexing and stretching in preparation for a sprint. They’re the equivalent of what a dancer does at the barre!

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And quite suddenly, he’s away. The frame compresses into a wide landscape format. The mark-making becomes swift, the drawing angular and the perspective foreshortens as elements distort and pile up through the compositions. Swagged from above with elaborate drapes, the drawings take on the feel of scenes for toy theatres, or ballet sequences from The Red Shoes. The architectural elements shift, bend and reconfigure. They’re halfway to being something you know, yet remain slippery, easily sidestepping categorisation. I’m reminded of the book decorations of the British neo-romantic artist and illustrator John Craxton. He’d have loved the riot of shapes that form a crazed proscenium arch to this image.

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Back to neo-classicism again, but with subversion. Is the stovepipe-hatted man affectionately cradling his beloved, or is he a killer about to dispose of his prey by dumping her in the sea?

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Paulsen has the knack of making landscapes that I want to walk around. I skirt the church with tiled roof, take a cliff-path to the acropolis and admire the long-shadowed poplars marching across the horizon. The outsized column with a toy-town urn is weirdly space-age in appearance, like London’s Post-Office Tower, with its revolving restaurant perched at the top. And there, like a pelmet above a window, the swags of a stage-curtain, be-tasselled with berries, reminding us that everything is artifice, a gorgeous film-flam of painted canvas and limelight.

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The theatricality prevails as actors on a stage perform, with us the audience witnessing the play. In the distance what in any known culture would be a bridge, its parapets clustered with houses and shops, here has become a promontory/pier leading to nowhere. It’s mad, and inventive and delightful, and I love it.

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Here two men have a tryst…

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… and here, lovers clasp hands, while behind a pillar a man pisses.

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There are compliments aplenty I could lavish on these. Suffice to say that I wish that I had made them. They are shot through with delights. There’s delight in their invention, their execution, and in their promise of adventure. I could write a story for them, and it would be full of exotic locations, unfathomable mysteries, confusing plot devices and heart-lurching melodrama, peopled with identical twins that deceive, duplicitous lawyers, love-letter-carrying duennas and barrel-chested heroes in stove-pipe hats. I’ve already told Kevin that I’m thinking of getting on a plane to the States to stalk him and steal them. He thinks I’m joking!

All photographs by Kevin Paulsen.

14 thoughts on “Kevin Paulsen’s Desirable Workbook

  1. Wow! What a talent! I looked at his website: his murals, paintings and drawings are absolutely deliciously wonderful! As you know I love anything that has that aged distressed quality. A prolific artist too, I am lost in admiration! Thanks for this post, which I missed for some reason, I found it just now.xxL

  2. I have been too depressed, too overworked, and too tired lately, to be able to write, but I have still been coming to visit every evening. Today I am feeling a little better, so I would like to say I have been in the Kevin Paulsen site, and I loved it, but I couldn’t find the “desirable notebook”. There are beautiful paintings and prints, but no gridded pages, and no workbook.

    I think what you do, Clive, showing your work in progress, and letting us in on the sketches… the trees, the landscapes and the colours and the changes you make throughout… is really great.

    I always admired Leonardo, but I began to love him when I first saw his sketches and drafts for his work. They tell us a story, and not just the story that you see in the final painting, but the story behind that. And the story of the painting itself. And, of course, the story of the artist…

    • Dear Maria

      I’m sorry to hear that you’ve been struggling recently. Breaking your wrist last year must have made everything that much harder for you. Let’s hope that when this wretched winter of unseasonable weather is over, and the cold and flu viruses loosen their grip on us, then things will improve. You spoke in your last e-mail to me of persistent colds, and I sympathise, as Peter and I are both in the middle of our second since Christmas. Not so long ago I was boasting that I hadn’t had a cold in four years. I should have kept my mouth shut!

      Kevin’s website is full of wonders, and I’m quite sure that in due course the workbook sketches I wrote about will make their ways there. But he shares generously of his work processes on his Facebook page, which is where I first saw the sketches. There you can see the day-to-day progress of his murals and room decors, from first sketches to completion. He shares his work processes most thoroughly and generously.

      • Thank you Clive
        I went to Kevin’s website and really enjoyed it, but can’t access his Facebook page, as you need to have a FB account for that, and I do not have one. I am not even in Twitter or Linkedin… though the latter could be useful for work… because I know myself, and I need to preserve my independence, such as it is.

        So, until the workbook sketches make their way to his website, I’ll look and admire them in your Artlog.

        Thank you again for everything, good wishes included.
        Love from freezing Madrid
        María

  3. Thanks for the wonderful post, Clive.

    You’re one of the few artists that understands my approach to making images. We are indeed kindred spirits. Applying some post modern notions to various vernacular influences, we arrive at what I hope are contemporary conclusions. I’m not a writer by any stretch, hence my limited verbal responses.

    Thank you all for the comments and the interest in my workbook images.

    Clive, thank you again…your prose is perfect.
    Warmest regards,
    Kevin

    • Kevin, frankly, it’s a relief you like what I wrote, because I didn’t speak to you about any of it, which I probably should have done. I so enjoyed making the post, not least because writing about your work is far from a chore. It gave me the opportunity to spend more time looking, and I love looking at what you make. I could have written a great deal more, and I’m sure I’ll return to take a tilt at another body of your drawings and paintings before too long.

      Writing about my own practice is something I’ve long done. Words are as important to me as images, and texts are among my greatest inspirations. My easel is pinned not with postcards of artists who inspire, but with snippets of poetry and literary quotes. I have no academic background, but I feel what you make on an intuitive level, which means that I can riff and be playful when writing about you. It comes as a surprise of the best sort that you are at ease with my approach. My heartfelt thanks for your kind comments above. They’ve made my day.

  4. He is excellent isn’t he. I’ve only recently discovered his work, following his FB page. But I have enjoyed each and every offering , seemingly rendered effortlessly with the simplest of mediums. Thanks for sharing such romantic images this St. Valentine’s Day .
    LG

  5. These are very reminiscent of early American memorial pictures. The neoclassical architectural elements, the weeping willow trees, and the sillouetted figures in mourning were among familiar iconography. To see a wonderful example, Google “Memorial to Enoch H. Long” by Mary B. Danforth, 1823. Or, you might simply search for images of “American theorem memorial pictures.” Whatever his inspirations, Kevin’s drawings ARE wonderful.

    • Anita, I have an abiding passion for American ‘folk’ art. For years I’ve been thieving patterns from my well-thumbed illustrated tomes (lovely old books found online), including the patchwork ‘Tree-of-Life’ coverlet I used as the model for the horse-blanket in Green George. The iconography you describe plays in my head like a tune I can’t shake off. In the instant of first setting eyes on Kevin Paulsen’s work a few years ago, I was as happy as a clam! (Don’t know where that came from! I seem to have come over all Tom Sawyer!)

      While I have an ardent fan’s appreciation of what Kevin does, I don’t have the art historian’s detailed knowledge to make the connections you would. I’ve always loved the way you analyse imagery, exploring ways in which things work with explanations that are illuminating and and compelling. I’d love to read your take on his work. You’d make a damned better job of it than me. No-one has better described my drawing than you did in your chapter of my 2011 monograph! I know that your life is full of family and creativity, but I sometimes wish that you could clone yourself so that you had the time to explore and write on art theory and contemporary practitioners. You have a forensic eye coupled with an artist’s warm appreciation. I’d buy the damned books! Go write ’em!

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