At the New York edition of the NADA art fair this past May, visitors who know of dealer and artist Joel Mesler might have been momentarily shocked to see a booth offering works from The Estate of Joel Mesler. No, the co-owner of Feuer/Mesler gallery on the Lower East Side did not die but his identity as a painter may or may not “live on” beyond completion of a given body of work. At NADA, the booth belonged to Adam Abdalla, whose public relations firm Cultural Counsel has many art world clients and who was intrigued by Mesler’s work and his conceptual authorship. The two have teamed up again for Fish People, an exhibition of ten paintings by The Estate of Joel Mesler presented by Sotheby’s S|2 Gallery and Cultural Counsel at Montauk’s The Surf Lodge. Ahead of the summer-themed show (which runs 21–28 July), Sotheby’s Nicholas Cinque, S|2 Gallery Director, spoke with Mesler and Abdalla about shaking up art world expectations, what a fish person is and more.
How did the collaboration between Cultural Counsel and Joel Mesler begin?
Adam Abdalla: Joel and I are longtime acquaintances, but it was the artist and our mutual friend Rashid Johnson who first made me aware of The Estate of Joel Mesler. Joel had been ruminating for a while about how to show his artwork in a way that wouldn't interfere with his gallery and his relationships with other artists. Rashid said, “You should really talk to Adam.”
We met for a drink at a bar on Orchard Street and Joel brought his portfolio. As someone who has collected works on paper by artists like Peter Saul, Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw and others, I really appreciated Joel’s range: from soulful to absurd, simple to grotesque.
I’d never sold an artwork, but a major goal for Cultural Counsel is experimentation, with a heavy emphasis on special projects. Our partnership fits this bill swimmingly (no pun intended). We applied for NADA New York with The Estate and things took off from there.
THE ESTATE OF JOEL MESLER, UNTITLED (NO MOUNTAIN FOLK ARE), 2016.
Artist estates usually require a non-living artist, don’t they?
Joel Mesler: I have always made art in short, distinctive periods of time. Although I am very excited to be doing it again, I cannot guarantee that I will not stop at any point again. So I think about my work as finite periods with a limited number of artworks contained therein. Even though I am still living, my experience as a producing artist could halt at any moment.
Where did Fish People, the name of this exhibition, come from?
JM: Fish People refers to the migration of New Yorkers to vacation towns on the water. We work hard all year and then transform in the summer months, relaxing, swimming in the water. We de-evolve a bit. We become the fish people!
AA: I think it has a cinematic ring to it.
THE ESTATE OF JOEL MESLER, UNTITLED (L.A. – N.Y.), 2016.
How do your other professions come into play with this exhibition?
AA: Well, for starters, Joel was a painter long before he was an art dealer. He initially envisioned selling art as something temporary to pay the bills while he focused on his own studio practice. And then, as you can imagine, life happens and priorities change. Joel has always been an artist at heart, even when his practice is inactive. This project has brought to light his robust body of work, and is hopefully the start of a larger conversation.
I've always wanted Cultural Counsel to do more than just traditional PR company, because frankly, that’s a pretty boring way to spend a lifetime. We're investing in editorial projects, programming, and other initiatives to maintain the intellectual level of our clients.
That said, this is not experiential marketing or some kind of gimmick. In terms of my own participation, I think this project is a litmus test of the art world’s conservatism. I don’t mean politically, but in terms of expecting people to adhere to a path of predictability. We’ve both been getting a lot of kudos publicly, but I have no doubt there are skeptics. I also really like the idea of partnering with an institution like Sotheby's, which thrives on the transparency of the market. I think transparency is a virtue that brought all the parties together here.
THE ESTATE OF JOEL MESLER, UNTITLED (I’M MOONLIGHTING), 2016.
What does the context of Montauk bring to these new paintings?
JM: These paintings are all made with the knowledge that the viewers will be in their “fish” state more than their human state. Because I feel a deep desire to connect to people and have them relate to me, I wanted to make paintings that would be enjoyed by fish eyes. That said, I do hope that human eyes can also enjoy them when back on land.
What were some of the reactions to the presentation at NADA art fair this past May?
AA: The response has been interesting. All of the art world insiders you would expect – advisers, artists, major collectors – stopped by the booth, whether out of support or morbid curiosity. It was successful, both from a marketing perspective as well as sales. It was a bit manic at times, since our entire booth was cash and carry and we had to constantly rehang, but we made it work.
Putting aside sales, the most profound feedback came from some unexpected places. As we were installing, a lot of the union guys from Local 1 who were building the fair approached our stand and examined the work at length. Maybe five different construction workers inquired about about a drawing that read “It’s Time to Leave New York,” asking who the artist was, and agreeing with the sentiment. I think Joel’s anxieties and reflections touch people in unexpected ways. As strange as the imagery can be, his hopes and fears, as he works hard to support a family within a vacuous and fickle system, speak to people from diverse backgrounds. That's what really made it a successful presentation to me.
THE ESTATE OF JOEL MESLER, UNTITLED (DOWN AND OUT IN), 2016.
Joel, tell us about your relationship with painting.
JM: I studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. I have never been consistent with my painting practice. I love the act of painting but the lifestyle has always been very difficult for me especially in my 20s and 30s. When I am actively painting, I tend to be more isolated and less social. I retreat a bit in order to better understand myself. When I was younger it was harder for me, because I wanted to be in the world, hustle a bit, and make some money. So I always fell back on art dealing.
This is an extremely social occupation. If you are a good art dealer you must be a 24-hour art dealer. Many deals get done after 3AM in a bar, hopped up and animated. Being an art dealer kept me social, made me friends and got me paid. Now that I’m in my early 40s with three children I crave that external stimulation less and less. Never has my arc felt better timed with my feelings and state of mind. I can finally be introspective without the guilt.
Who are your influences? Where do your characters and text come from?
JM: I make a lot of drawings, usually in the evening after my children go to bed. On good nights I can make anywhere between five and ten successful drawings. The images and text come directly from my day, including thoughts, fears and accomplishments. During each session, I try to put language to my raw experiences, without any predisposition. Some days I am more in touch with deeper self than others.
Visually I am most infused by the German Expressionists, specifically the Blue Rider artists. There is something about the continual need for self-expression, even while some of the artists would have to work underground (literally) so the dogs couldn’t smell their oil paint. The male figure always has some resemblance to my father and the female to my mother. I am still trying to better understand how my childhood shaped me or rather fucked me up.