Smart Play: David Kettner and Todd Keyser

At Gross McCleaf Gallery

February 4th through 28th

By Olivia Jia


Smart Play at the Gross McCleaf Gallery contains surprisingly contemporary content in comparison to the gallery’s usual offering of realist painting. The two-person exhibition presents collage works by David Kettner and paintings by Todd Keyser. Upon first glance, the works could not be more different. Kettner’s collages are composed of materials that have become muted and yellowed with time. The varying shades of aged paper soften the geometric relationships where the ninety-degree angles of the pages meet. On the other hand, Keyser’s paintings are bold and vivid constructions of color and shape. Smart Play’s success lies in how the two artists’ works build a conversation: through juxtaposition, the viewer becomes more aware of subtle questions of content and form raised by both artists.


Kettner’s collages are constructed of pages from used children’s coloring books that he collects. He contrasts the innocent, intuitive nature of children’s drawings with an adult’s rationality, often to witty or comical effect. While Kettner’s collages are dependent on the relationship between the subject matters of existing materials, the majority of Keyser’s paintings here deal with the coaxing of form from an abstract picture plane. The title functions in the same way that the two artists’ works interact—though they initially contrast with one another, the pieces ultimately serve to underline and highlight moments of precision and playfulness in both.


As a collage artist, David Kettner’s work is driven by the specificity and materiality of the images he selects. The majority of Kettner’s pieces in Smart Play have an archaic appearance. They are yellowed and fragile, and become a signifier of time; they imply that the children who once filled these coloring books have since aged. In the process of aging, they have implicitly lost the ability to access the freedom of mark making that is inherent in childhood.


Kettner’s collages are intriguing for his use of children’s drawings and used coloring book pages. Unlike collages that exclusively use mechanically printed or circulated materials, Kettner’s work questions the agency of the artist. By appropriating children’s drawings, he builds a relationship between the original maker’s intention in drawing, and his own manipulation of the images.


One of the most engaging aspects of Kettner’s work is his insertion of social and political content into the collages, content that is entirely generated through his juxtaposition of imagery. The collages constantly subvert themselves: the use of old children’s coloring books provides a mask of innocence, yet Kettner’s manipulation of the images asserts a darker subject. Through Kettner’s decisions, the childrens’ drawings are become uncanny and foreboding. Prime examples in the show are War and Peace and Harmony.


Upon first glance, the imprecise scribblings of children dominate the picture plane of Kettner’s collages, whereas Keyser’s paintings are defined by the mechanical precision through which the slightest edge is painted. Even the ends of the thinnest lines are painted carefully, each line becoming a rectangular form in its own right. Yet one can read Keyser’s work through its language of mathematical precision not because the works are void of fluid mark or gesture, but because they are juxtaposed with Kettner’s collages. Keyser’s paintings, though full of sharp forms and witty tangents, are also defined through his use of atmospheric stains or thick, layered swaths of paint that create ambiguous spatial depth. Although this is visible in all of his paintings, the accumulation of mark-making and paint is particularly evident in Elevations, in which the physical materiality of the painting asserts itself despite the accurate and mechanical edges. The painting becomes a palimpsest—through the physical layers the viewer can see the architectural forms beneath the surface.


Keyser’s Sunlight is one of the highlights of the show. The painting has the illusory quality of a James Turrell work. Through minimal clues, Keyser places the viewer into a fictional space. Accuracy is key to Keyser’s paintings, and the care with which each edge is arranged is what relates Sunlight to Kettner’s work. Corner Bar is an example of a collage in which the slightest decision could affect the coherency of the work. As in Keyser’s paintings, Kettner’s collages are a symphony of careful arrangement. The collage reads as a unified mage, before a further examination breaks it into shards.


Perhaps what makes Smart Play such a surprising and successful show is its elucidation of the numerous layers and modes that contribute to the content and construction of a piece. The collision of Kettner’s collages and Keyser’s paintings allows for a simultaneous demystification of the aesthetic, material, and content-driven decisions within both artists’ work. Keyser’s paintings emphasize the formulaic qualities of Kettner’s work. On the other hand, Kettner’s collages emphasize the logic and implications of spatial play in Keyser’s paintings. The decision to combine the two artists’ work in Smart Play was a curatorial success. The show requires the viewer to consider the pieces outside of the context of each artist’s established practice.


Olivia Jia is a painting student at the University of the Arts. She is interested in aesthetic philosophy and writing, and hopes to integrate these pursuits with her studio work.