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Visions in the dark
Stephen Kasner’s art (call it ‘creepy-mysterious’) has lots of fans. But it isn’t for everyone.
By Rachel Leibrock – firstname.lastname@example.org
At the time, it stung. But Stephen Kasner now remembers the moment with a rueful laugh.
It was a summer evening in 2004, and Kasner was making his Second Saturday debut at the Exploding Head Gallery on 12th Street.
Hanging back in the shadows, the Cleveland expat watched as a 60-something couple examined his paintings – including one of a giant, macabre, dark-hued oil on canvas titled “Woman With Arm.”
The female patron tilted her head one way, then another. She stepped up close to get a better view, then moved several feet back for a different perspective.
Finally, she declared: “No, I just don’t like anything about it.”
“It would have been a relief if she’d liked the colors or technique,” Kasner says, retelling the story recently.
“But she couldn’t find a thing. She just hated it. That was my trial by fire.”
Welcome to Sacramento.
Of course, Kasner, 37, hasn’t let such an inauspicious beginning stand in his way. Three years ago, he moved to Sacramento with his wife, Rebecca, and 11-year-old daughter, Madeleine, to be closer to Rebecca’s family.
He even likes it here, he says. Even if the city doesn’t quite get his bleakly enigmatic sensibilities, which he has showcased around the world.
His works are also famous among fans of underground heavy-metal music, with a new oversized coffee-table book, “Stephen Kasner WORKS: 1993-2006″ (Scapegoat Publishing, $29.95, 160 pages), chronicling his oeuvre.
So, Kasner is confident that local art aficionados will, eventually, open up to his efforts.
“At least (the woman at the Exploding Head Gallery) tried,” Kasner reasons. “I was just happy that she put forth some kind of effort. She wasn’t blatantly disgusted; she didn’t just walk away.”
And that’s a start.
(Not so) dark shadows
Kasner doesn’t really like the term “dark,” although even he stumbles when he tries to think of a more fitting term to describe his murky, surreal work: oversized oil paintings, ink illustrations and heavy-metal album covers.
“It is dark, but it’s also something else,” Kasner says. “It’s ethereal – I think there’s beauty in them, too.”
Relaxing at home with Rebecca, a freelance Web designer, it’s clear Kasner is finely attuned to the thin line between the beautiful and the grotesque.
The Kasners’ Victorian flat, perched on the edge of downtown, is a rich, Gothic tapestry of overstuffed furniture, framed butterfly corpses and Kasner’s looming works. The effect is intriguing, yet foreboding.
Kasner, however, is more of a study in contrasts. Although he cuts an imposing figure, with long, dark hair and a goatee, he is unfailingly polite, warm and approachable.
Certainly, if there are any gloomy personal subtexts to his work, Kasner keeps them private. It appears his is art for art’s sake, with no unhappy childhood woes to spur on inspiration.
Indeed, Kasner’s earliest memories place him, at age 3, beneath his seamstress mother’s workshop table, scribbling away on an illustration.
Looking back, Kasner says, that untitled piece of crayon on wood depicting a ghostly figure with a gruesome smile represents art’s purest intentions.
“That was this beautiful time,” he says. “Just a period when I simply sensed the power that comes from within when drawing. There was no conception of commerce or money – that meant nothing to me.”
Kasner got his first notion of turning his love into a career when an uncle tipped him off to the idea of art school.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wait – you can go to school for this?’ ” Kasner says. “From that moment on, I didn’t set my sights on anything else.”
OK, wait, he admits, that’s not quite true. There was a love of music, too, fueled by lessons and his first acoustic guitar, a present from his father.
After high school, Kasner studied at the Cleveland Art Institute, where he searched for a voice while trying to fight the intimidation of attending classes with kids who grew up on a steady diet of museums and art galleries.
Kasner slowly built up his confidence and, the summer before his final year, dived into his thesis, shaping the distinctive style that now personifies his work.
It paid off – big time – when, on graduation day, Kasner was approached at his senior art exhibit by the members of one of Cleveland’s most popular metal bands, Craw. The band was searching for someone to do its new album cover – they had even held a contest – but one look at Kasner’s work and, well, would he be interested?
He was. For Kasner, who just happened to be a Craw fan, it was a fortuitous moment. The album went on to do well in metal circles, and established Kasner as a go-to guy for eerily provocative album covers.
“It was just unbelievable,” he says. “It was the crystallization of fine art and media.”
It was also a timely boost after rejection from several commercial illustration companies.
“They told me I’d be better off on my own,” Kasner says with a shrug.
So, following his experience with Craw, Kasner hunkered down, nabbing a few freelance gigs and setting about to perfect his images: beautiful birds frozen in near-death poses, ghostly dreamscapes populated with skeletal figures and demons, spooky portraits swathed in filmy light.
And, his work started to get noticed, netting reviews from such art and music magazines as Alternative Press, Vice and Obscura. There were exhibits in New York, Washington, D.C., and Australia.
Then, a few years ago, Baltimore-based Scapegoat Publishing approached Kasner about showcasing his work in a full-color art book.
“It had a darkness that fascinated me,” says Kevin Slaughter, Scapegoat’s co-publisher, on the phone from Baltimore. “It was kind of dreamlike, with a beautiful sensibility.”
Slaughter’s business partner, Chris X, admired Kasner’s work as well, especially the way the artist rendered shadows and light into exquisite reveries.
“Some of the images are nightmarish, (but) some are peaceful,” he says. “For some, ‘dark’ comes with connotations of evil or violence, and I don’t think his work embodies that at all.”
Artist, rest and motion
Today, Kasner crafts a comfortable living with commissioned projects, freelance illustrations and work as a tattoo artist. Small paintings sell for $2,000 to $3,000, while a 7-foot-high piece commands as much as $20,000.
Downtime is spent noodling around with his experimental noise band, Blood Fountains.
For now, work and play coexist in the space he shares with Rebecca and Madeleine, who – although very proud of her father’s art (the fifth-grader included Kasner on a recent list of “favorite celebrities,” right up there with the likes of Hannah Montana) – prefers Kelly Clarkson to Dad’s experimental tastes.
He’s consumed with upcoming projects, which will include exhibitions in San Francisco and Los Angeles, plus two new versions of his book.
With all that, Kasner says, he’s too busy to pursue local shows – at least for a while.
When he does, Jodie deVries, co-owner of the since-shuttered Exploding Head, thinks that Sacramento will take notice.
“His work is strong and definitely, for the lack of a better word, has a creepy edge to it,” deVries says. “But it’s not creepy-scary, it’s creepy-mysterious.
“His bird and figural images are just so intense, so enigmatic and dreamy. It’s not work to be taken lightly – it’s serious. You can’t just walk by it and smile. It’ll hit you over the head.”
The way Rebecca Kasner sees it, people just have to respond to her husband’s work. There is, she explains, a little bit of his aesthetic in all of us.
“Stephen’s work is representative of something deeper that everyone knows something about,” she says. “I watch people examine his art and … inevitably they (talk about) how his work evokes memories they’ve forgotten or places they’ve only visited in dreams.”
But, if, in the end, they decide that, well, there’s just not anything to like about it?
Well, that’s OK, too, Kasner says with a good-natured sigh.
“I have a good sense of humor about such things – I don’t brood,” he says. “I’m open-minded enough to know that my work isn’t for everyone.”