Landscapes of the mind

“Nobody wants to travel with me,” declares Asheville artist Kenn Kotara, “because it takes forever to get anywhere.” He pulls a stack of index cards covered with tiny line drawings from his shirt pocket, holding them out as guilty proof. “When I see something by the side of the road that catches my eye, I have to stop and do a sketch.”

Kotara files these cards away in a large box. In time, the simple sketches often metamorphose into the striking, geometrical landscape studies for which the artist is fast becoming famous. (Recent coups include a commission from First Union Bank corporate headquarters in Charlotte for two large (8-feet-by-4-feet) pieces — which he had to complete in a scant five weeks — and a series of exhibitions lined up through next year.)

Kotara’s current works explore the quixotic landscapes of his imagination, executed in lines and shapes and angles and corners that recall the four years he spent studying architecture — until he decided, as he puts it, “I didn’t want to spend my life counting screws and doors, like I’d been doing in my internships,” and opted to pursue fine-arts studies instead. (Kotara had been winning art contests since he was a child — starting with a pastel drawing of dinosaurs when he was in fifth grade.) “It just made my parents crazy when I decided not to go into architecture,” he remembers. “They said, ‘What are you doing? You can paint and draw on the side.’ And I said, ‘No, I can’t.'” He completed a degree in graphic design (perhaps as a kind of compromise), then took his first figure-drawing class at the age of 28. Going on to earn a master’s degree in painting, he’s counted nary a screw nor door since.

The geometrical landscapes Kotara’s known for today had their beginnings in highly realistic counterparts. A Louisiana native who lived in South Texas (Austin and Dallas) for years, he became intrigued with reproducing the marshlands, rice fields and spare, flat plains of his homeland. He also completed a series of delicate, picture-perfect watercolor studies while traveling in France in the late ’80s. “I was just cruising around, staying with friends, and I found this mountain that was near Cezanne’s hometown — a mountain that he painted something like 32 times,” says Kotara. “And I’d studied his paintings so much, so I wanted to paint the mountain myself a couple of times.” On that same trip, Kotara painted a muted view of the orange-roofed, stucco structures of Cezanne’s hometown, Aix-en-Provence. “The buildings created … the kind of mosaic pattern that’s always fascinated me,” he notes.

“I was doing landscapes and still lifes that were representational, because I [at first] didn’t know any different [way to depict them],” Kotara continues. “And I would see — when I was driving around or cycling or whatever — an old bottle or some shape on the horizon and I’d say, ‘Oh, this is really nice. I’d love to capture this.’ And then I’d think, ‘But I could capture this with a camera, if I really wanted to.'”

After taking a job as a computer-graphics designer at Texas Women’s University in Dallas (Kotara still works part-time as a graphic designer, but notes it’s becoming more and more possible to make his living as a painter), he began to focus more deeply on the abstract, geometrical aspects of the landscapes he viewed while riding his bike on ribbonlike back roads. “I started thinking in terms of planes and shapes instead of the actual objects,” he remembers. And while Kotara slaved away at his “straight” job, these planes and shapes found their way onto a collection of those ubiquitous yellow Post-It notes office workers know and love so well.

“At Texas Women’s, I’d make a change on the computer, and while I was saving it (computers were slower then), I’d start doodling on 3-M Post-It notes, drawing something I remembered from my previous day while I was out cycling,” he recounts — pulling out a color copy speckled with life-size Post-It drawings marked by eloquent lines and angles. (Eventually, Kotara collectively framed all the original Post-Its and sold the piece.)

The artist describes the glorious spring wildflower bounties found off-road between Austin and Houston, punctuated by rows of golden-tasseled corn. “I kept thinking about that landscape, and that each little section of color might be sectioned off by a fencerow next to a corn field. … Finally, I got to this simplification of the way I look at life. I mean, [the way I portray landscapes in my work] is not the way I literally see the world, but it’s the way I want to transform the world. You can go out and take photos and shoot videos that capture every minutia. What I want to do is break things down to the barest essentials.”

Kotara’s upcoming Asheville exhibit (at The Balcony) traces the artist’s five-year progression from meticulous realism to stark imagination. “For the first time, I get to show people where I came from,” he says excitedly. The show will feature works ranging from matchbook size to largish (though none of his gargantuan works will be on display), using most every medium in existence — “pencil, pen, watercolors, oils, acrylics, peanut butter,” as Kotara puts it.

The small, carefully executed French landscapes (such as “Aix-en-Provence”) done in whispery greens, blues and oranges give way to the flattened, horizontal planes — also marked by blues, greens and golds — of works like “Printemps” (“Spring”), a piece inspired by the flat, open farmland of South Texas. “In this one, you can still see the landscape a little,” he muses, examining the work. “Here’s the road, and here farmers have come in and sectioned the land off.”

Finally, much of Kotara’s latest work — such as “Province Rouge,” executed in deep and bright reds and yellows — features rows of vertical lines and planes that often explode into dizzying profusions of cornered angles as they reach the upper limits of the canvas. He views “Province Rouge” and its blue-hued companion, “Province Bleu” (both of which he produced, in larger versions, for the First Union commission) as tree forms. “Sometimes, you’re driving along and you see this tree line and you see the light in between the trunks, and that’s what I tried to capture with these pieces,” he explains. “In fact, I saw something similar to Matisse’s “Can’t See the Forest” here one late evening, where it was growing dark, but the sun had come behind this row of trees and all you could see were the tree trunks.”

Admittedly, not everyone appreciates Kotara’s new, stripped-down style. “When I started really simplifying my work like this, I had someone say, ‘Hey, my kid could do this.’ Well, I say, knock yourself out, kid,” continues the artist. “The gratification I receive from doing something like this, as opposed to going out and painting a realistic landscape, is that I have to think hard about this, because it’s all coming from my own memory. It’s experience from years back. I’m digging deep, back to when I was a kid. You know, seeing a shape and wondering if it means anything? And how does it relate to other shapes? So for me, going from very representational work to this work from my own imagination … I find my imagination much more exciting. And if I’m the only one who finds it exciting, so be it. I’ll just hang it on my own wall. … When I come into my studio, I never assume that anyone will ever buy any of my work. I just do what comes from my gut.”

And what comes from his gut is always irrevocably inspired by the land that surrounds him. Since Kotara moved to the mountains two years ago, his work has become decidedly vertical. He attributes the new direction to “the kind of claustrophobic effect of the forest here. It took me awhile to respond to that: I was still back there in Texas and Louisiana in my mind. And I’ll continue to play with those vertical pieces until something else strikes my fancy.”

Actually, something else has struck Kotara’s fancy: the piano. “I love music, and I wish I could be a concert pianist,” he explains. “So I started doing these piano pieces about a year back.” Kotara’s first such work was a highly representational depiction of a royal-blue grand piano. Now, the artist’s piano forms, like his landscapes, are breaking down — the latest pieces becoming beautifully disjointed amalgamations of the swirling, curving shapes found in the sweep of a grand piano. Next, says Kotara, he’d like to tackle his very favorite instrument: the cello.

He pauses to laugh at himself. “I have so many ideas, I’ll never live to do them all,” he confesses. “I keep adding things and adding things, and there’s just a limited amount of time. [My significant other] is putting moratoriums on my ideas. I’ll say, ‘Honey, I’ve got this great idea.’ She’ll say, ‘Please, no more ideas.'” In the next breath, he’s talking about getting back to figurative works in innovative, nonrepresentational ways and branching out into three-dimensional, free-standing sculpture.

Whatever forms they may take, though, Kotara will continue to explore the vistas born in his deeply fertile imagination. “I’m not interested in shocking anyone,” he notes quietly. “I look for a sense of place and a sense of beauty, and I want to look at the human nature within nature. It isn’t really, really exciting stuff. People don’t look at it all the time and go ‘wow!’ There’s a very contemplative aspect to my work. … It isn’t meant to bowl you over. I don’t create it to bowl myself over, either.”

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