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Paintings as illusions: Kessler weaves historical narrative with first solo show

Warren Kessler, a local painter, will display his work at ecce in downtown Fargo through early September. Photo by MeLissa Kossick / The Arts Partnership1 / 3
"Escape," an oil painting by Warren Kessler, will be on display at ecce in downtown Fargo. Special to The Forum2 / 3
"Respect," an oil painting by Warren Kessler, inclines the viewer to pocket the $50 bill. Special to The Forum3 / 3

FARGO – Warren Kessler is a magician with a paintbrush. At least, he creates illusions like one.

Kessler's newest series of artworks are trompe-l'oeil (pronounced tromp-loy), meaning to paint using optical illusion. Kessler wants to entertain and intrigue his audiences.

"In the same way people go to see a magician, I look at the paintings as an illusion," he says.

Bored with photo realism, Kessler combined his detailed nature and family history to explore illusionary painting in oil. He says the work is beyond photo realism. "I want to make the viewer believe the object is there in front of them," he says.

Referencing family members and personal stories, he weaves a historical narrative through the works. One of the paintings, "Respect," includes a $50 bill that will incline viewers to pocket it.

"My grandfather used to say, 'If you don't respect a penny, you don't deserve a dollar,' " says Kessler.

He also adds personal touches to his paintings, such as family members' initials and his son's birthdate.

After discovering a photograph of his grandmother perched atop a suitcase, he began an anecdote in relation to travel. Kessler saw her as youthful, "as though she was ready to launch her life." He merged the photograph with a handwritten letter, unearthed in North Dakota, addressed to Albertine, and imagery of the railroad to create "Escape."

Kessler believes art should be about communicating with the viewer. "I can tell a family story within a painting, but the viewer can make up their own story, too. I love hearing what the viewer sees."

Kessler is one to watch. Recently, he was the recipient of the inaugural Erin Koffler Memorial, granted through The Arts Partnership. Using the funds, he competed among 35 painters at "Paint Du Nord," a weeklong plein air painting competition hosted by the Duluth (Minn.) Institute of Art. Plein air painting challenges the artist with rapidly changing conditions.

Kessler stretched his skills and patience in the elements. "The changing light and conditions are unpredictable, not like working in the constants of the studio," he says.

Kessler's painting series will be on exhibit Thursday through Sept. 20 at ecce art + yoga, 216 Broadway, in downtown Fargo.

Mark Weiler, ecce gallery founder, is also interested in the historical narrative of the paintings. "This is an exceptional series, and we want to display this type of unusual work," Weiler says.

While he has collaborated with other prominent area artists like Jon Offutt and the Red River Watercolor Society, this is Kessler's first solo show in a gallery.

"I've put a lot into this; it's a culmination of my work. This show is a big deal to me," he says.

If you go

What: Warren Kessler opening reception

When: 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday

Where: ecce, 216 Broadway, Fargo