One Man in the Valley of Decision

Geoff Wichert (2008)


Brian Kershsinik wanted to be an architect, but the University of Utah, where he started his formal art training, had no bachelor’s degree in architecture.  So he switched to ceramics, which offered a degree, but found no sense of vocation in clay.  A mission and university degrees in art followed.  Then he fell in love, married, and started a family in the town where his wife’s family had settled.  One of the countless once-ambitious relics of western migration Kanosh already had more buildings than it needed.  Then as now it was the sort of picturesque village where travelers envy the residents while wondering how they earn a living.  Kershisnik found himself confronting the dilemma most art school graduates face: to take a day job and drift through life, or make some serious sacrifices in order to make art.  Fortunately, options he’d neglected at B.Y.U. and the University of Texas turned out to be things he was really good at, including life drawing, oil painting, and the one skill an artist must have in order to have a prayer of succeeding.  Artists make choices, and Kershisnik, a modest but not a humble man, knows how to choose.


“It’s not that the choice is right, but that you have to choose,” he explains which showing off his spacious studio, a former social hall and possibly the closest thing in Utah to a New York City loft.  “The Chi requires at some point you don’t think any more.  You need to do it.”  In heterodox cities like San Francisco and Seattle, esoteric terms like Zen and Yoga re commonly applied to the discipline of art making, but it’s startling to her Chi, a Chinese word referring to balance and the untroubled flow of natural events, invoked in such an orthodox setting.  But then, part of what brought me here was curiosity about someone whose art defies the expectations of both those communities.  Here was a painter many regard as a primarily religious artist, but who appeals to me as someone who makes universal art infused with deep spiritual feeling.  So I came to see if I could uncover the real Brian Kershisnik.


It’s unnecessary to recognize every possible reading of painting, since each individual viewer assigns it a personal value.  Sometimes it’s hard to find a place to start, to enter a word, but the honest artist should not be blamed for the difficulty that comes from choosing content that can only be approached indirectly.  “I work on metaphors puzzling even to me,” Kershsinik says.  “I am thrilled with things I don’t understand – that are inscrutable.  And I want inscrutability to be an element of the painting.”


All the same, it is important for those who prefer either the transcendental Kershisnik or the domestic realist Kershisnik, and try to ignore the other, to realize the both intentions interact in complex ways as the hunches and ideas where is art begins “move through the material” towards their undefined destination.  Otherwise we miss his point.  The events he narrates with what seems like calm detachment are visual metaphors that carry meaning in both directions, between the visible world, which is the world we live in but also the painted world, and as many invisible levels – intellectual, emotional, spiritual – as they can reach.


The various enigmatic, charming, or prescient scenes taking shape in the indefinite settings are moments of enlightenment emerging from the mundane hours of life.  At first seemingly trivial, they become significant because they are important to those within them.  Unlike the familiar Baroque masterpieces that set the popular standard for art – Rubens, Rembrandt, Velazquez – a Kershisnik doesn’t reach dramatically through the picture plan to make us participants in the scene.    Instead, touches of brown, purple, yellow, and red warm up a predominantly cool palette of blue, green, black, and white, while we witness from a respectful distance.  He belies that the veil separating us from whatever lies beyond our material experience is there for a reason and deserves our respect.  When experience pierces the veil, we may look through, but should not disturb what we see.  “Be Careful,” the painter says: “This is about strolling in the garden.  It would be indecent for us to interfere.  A bad painter does this by bringing us too close to the action, until we feel the indecency.”  This reticence, which should not be confused with neutrality, makes for images that feel cool in an age when many artists are striving for heat.


Finally, it comes down to the paintings.  The wit, humor, and exquisite, reticent beauty draw us in and create a place of respite from a world that is too much with us.  But what might we carry away?  When to Stop depicts a young man who might be an angel interrupting another man’s work.  I may not be interested in angels, but I am curious about inner voices, and aware that another may see me more clearly than I can.  In Nativity, a river of white-clad men, women, and children flows sinuously from left to right, like a line of text, across nearly empty space.  With anxious expressions and eager gestures they approach a man with closed eyes, one hand to his face, and two women, their hands busy with a pail of water and towels who stare in rapture at the face of a third woman who with her calm gaze redirects ours to the child she holds to her breast.  The heavenly host flows above this vision, peering down as they pass, but then hurrying on as though this sight, however compelling, was only an incident on their journey.   was satisfied by this insight, but the viewer next to me countered that there were going out to spread the good news.  Well, it is good news, and we all have places to go.  The artist may have an opinion which of us is closer to his intention, but Kershisnik favors inclusive readings.  “You have to let their story in, too.” 


Many of the themes that have preoccupied Brian Kershisnik for two decades are collected in a vast panorama titled Multitude in the Valley of Decision.Among more than sixty figures waiting alone or in small groups are earnest men and women, musicians, and acrobats, parents with children, even pirouetting birds and companionable dogs.If judgment is coming, no one seems anxious about it.We may wonder, though, how the artist means this to apply to our lives.Should we be complacent?As calm and competent as the living are, Kershisnik has no doubt that life isn’t easy.When his Jesus goes about his ministry, he must roll up his sleeves.The blind man reels from the pain of his cure and the burden of ability.Sweat and blood accompany nativity.There are questions to ponder.Is reading work or pleasure?We enjoy singing: why not all our labors?How is a marriage like a bicycle?My question – is Brian Kershisnik more interested in this life of the next – turns out to be meaningless.The doors he paints open equally in both directions, and the image of one refers simultaneously to the other.As he rolls up his sleeves and returns to work, he is that rare, happy man who spends his days doing what he loves.If his easel, like its products, is a metaphor, so is the rubric that brings him to it fresh every day: “The unexhausted metaphor is a wellspring of possibilities.”