From the August/September 2014 Issue:

The Dream, the Reality

    By: John Zeaman |

Jersey City artist paints with force, presence and knowledge of the aesthetic appeal of mystery

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enlarge | “Echo and Narcissus,” oil on linen. 2013. Artist: Mark Kurdziel Photos by Dahlia Broul
From an artist’s point of view, a painting is a dream coaxed into visibility that goes into the world and—hopefully—comes to rest on a stranger’s wall.

It’s a curious process when you think about it. Not just the dream-into-reality part, but what happens afterward: all the middlemen who push the painting along and make a home for it, including dealers, architects, interior designers, contractors.

Painters, being dreamy impractical types, often know little about this part of things. But Jersey City artist Mark Kurdziel is different. He’s plenty dreamy. But circumstances and necessity have made the 57-year-old artist savvy about what happens to paintings when they leave the studio.

He teaches fine art at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where interior design majors take his classes in drawing and painting. He also once worked in high-end residential construction, where he collaborated with Manhattan designers to ensure that walls got put in the right place. These walls, often as not, ended up with art on them.

Is it surprising that so many of his own paintings are set in interiors? On one level these are scenes of domestic intimacy. The fish tank bubbles, a tabby cat stalks and naps, a nude lies vulnerable on a bed, a window offers a glimpse of sky and rooftops.

But don’t mistake it for realism. Life is stripped of mundane particulars. Ordinary time has slowed down or stopped. Even light is divorced from natural law. It doesn’t slant across the floor or pick up highlights on a face. It radiates from within the picture, as in a Paul Klee abstraction. In more ominous pictures, figures spookily radiate blackness through the superficial coloring of their clothes.

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enlarge | “The Blue Curtains,” oil on linen. 2013. Photo by Dahlia Broul
Making a Statement
These are highly personal pictures. They take the viewer into the artist’s mind with all the messy or charged content that that implies. And that is the paradox of Kurdziel’s sophistication. He sells work to designers. But for all his knowledge about how they think, his paintings are far from passive, unwilling to play background to a sofa.

“I once had a woman look at my paintings and say they were too active for her house. I told her I’d spent the past 30 years of my life trying to make active paintings.” He laughs.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for what interior designers do. It’s not easy to put this art into someone else’s space. Real art is strong, and sometimes it can be overwhelming.”

So it was for an architect who came to Kurdziel’s studio. “He found the paintings too bright, too colorful,” Kurdziel recalls. “He was poking around my studio and found sketches from the two-minute poses at life drawing. He took them and had them framed. I wouldn’t have even thought of it.”

There’s a prejudice among designers in favor of horizontal paintings because they fit so well over couches. “People will ask why a certain painting is not horizontal. I made a picture, ‘Echo and Narcissus,’ that is vertical. That’s how the composition evolved. When I start a picture, I’m not thinking of whether it will be more salable if it’s horizontal,” he says. “At the same time, I know that houses have limitations. You’re not going to sell a giant painting for a home in Japan.”

In his role as a teacher, Kurdziel gets to mold young minds. “One reason I enjoy teaching interior design majors is because they grow up and sell paintings. I can give them a sense of what I think quality is. Then they can take these ideas out into the world.”

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enlarge | “Still Life with Flowers,” oil on linen. 2013. Photo by Dahlia Broul
Technique and the Emotion Behind It
There’s a tension between abstract and representation in Kurdziel’s work. He admires the French painter Balthus and others from the School of Paris. But he likewise feels the pull of the New York School of abstract expressionists and such artists as Willem de Kooning and Hans Hofmann. He’s less comfortable talking about poetic content than about the formal or technical problems in paintings, such as the struggle to render three-dimensional space without sacrificing surface relationships.

“I like to put the brightest value in the deepest part of the painting, so that the line is going back into space, while the color is coming forward. It’s the opposite of the way things work in perceptual and photographic space.”

Animals have an important place in Kurdziel’s landscapes. He populates them with horses, wolves, antelopes and zebras. Some were inspired by a trip he took to Africa several years ago. But a painting of a woman with tiny zebras dancing above her head had its origins in a Jimi Hendrix song.

Otherwise, nature is represented by the pet cats and tropical fish found in the interiors.

“I’ve always admired those old master paintings that have all of existence in them—heaven, hell, sky, earth, women and men and animals. But for many of us, nature has been reduced to our cats, our fish, our potted plants —or whatever we can see out the window.”

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enlarge | “Toying with Cats,” oil on linen. 2012. Photo by Dahlia Broul
The Allure of Mystery
A transplant from Manhattan, Kurdziel has lived for more than 20 years in the Hamilton Park neighborhood of Jersey City, where the view out the window can include peregrine falcons. He has a spacious loft in the historic Wells Fargo building, where the storied company once kept its horses and carriages. “You can still see where they tied up the horses,” he says, pointing to a rusty old ring attached to a wood column.

This is where he spends his days when he’s not teaching, crafting paintings full of personal archetypes that never quite surrender their meanings. Some are based on real people and relationships. The one of Echo and Narcissus is actually about Kurdziel’s relationship with his sister, who died two years ago.

“We had a difficult relationship. We couldn’t communicate. It was like unrequited love on both sides, though we were brother and sister. We were sealed off from each other, like Echo and Narcissus.”

This is a rare exegesis for Kurdziel. He believes in making serious paintings about personal experiences, but he doesn’t believe in putting it front and center.

“Whatever motivates you to make the painting—something that is super-personal should be in the background,” he says. “You don’t want to confront people with it.”

This is about the aesthetic appeal of mystery, not about making something salable. As much as he knows what designers like and the difficulty of selling paintings that don’t blend in, he sticks to his guns. “I’m not trying to paint ugly pictures. I’m trying to paint something that’s my idea of beautiful. I like beautiful paintings, beautiful houses, beautiful designs. But I want my paintings to have some force and presence.”

Columnist John Zeaman is a freelance art critic who writes regularly for The Record and Star-Ledger newspapers. His reviews of exhibits in New Jersey have garnered awards from the New Jersey Press Association, the Society of Profes­sional Journalists (New Jersey chapter) and the Manhattan-based Society of Silurians, the nation’s oldest press club. He is the author of Dog Walks Man, (Lyons Press, September 2010) about art, landscape and dog walking.