5.1.19 / New York / New York

From The Mark Hotel to Frieze, Joel Mesler’s Portraits Add Accessibility to the Art World

Taking the air out of the art world from someone who has spent his life within it

  • On Saturday galleries and painter Joel Mesler posted up on a bench outside the Mark Hotel, where he would go on to paint both hotel guests and passersby alike. It was a brief preview of Mesler’s latest portrait-sessions, which he’ll be painting on ferry going to Frieze Art Fair. These mini-sessions have become popular at art fairs like Independent and NADA, but for him it’s an opportunity to add a personal connection with his work, and in doing so, find something new to discover as an artist.

    After decades of being in the art world as a gallerist Mesler has returned to painting, but with a different attitude this time. “I haven’t said it yet, I still have a day job, I sell other people’s art, but pretty much hopefully I’ll be able to quit my day job at some point. People seem to be what I’m doing.”It’s not the first time Mesler has been on this side of art, however, and the experience has given him enough perspective to approach it with a little levity. “I actually went to school for art, and I was an artist—I just wasn’t a successful artist, nobody liked anything I did. Because nobody bought anything, I couldn’t really afford to be an artist. So I just packed the paints away.” But as these things go, inspiration struck Mesler once again, and he felt drawn back into painting. “I was able to pull the paints out of storage, and try it again, hopefully the idea that I was older, I actually had some purpose or something, as opposed to earlier I just looked to paint because I maybe thought I deserved to paint or something like that.”

    It proved to be a good decision, and the art world has finally shown Mesler some appreciation. His series of ‘banana leaf’ paintings netted a profit, and received enough attention for a profile in the New York Times. Despite that, Mesler approached it all with a little grain of salt, having known the intricacies of the industry from the perspective of a dealer. “I had so many relationships and I have seen the high and lows that artists have gone through, that I kind of, I clearly know things not to do, and our world is a little bit of talent a little bit of luck, so I think it’s just trying to not fuck up.”

    Despite the popularity of his portrait series, he’s self-effacing about each portrait—even while he’s painting them. The idea isn’t as much about creating John Singer Sargent-level portraits for people, but rather create something accessible and allow his practice a new dimension devoid of industry demands. “It’s nice having another aspect of the practice where it is interactive, and it’s about the people. You start to make work for the one percent, you start to become it yourself, and maybe you can become an asshole. So many people said you should raise the prices but I’ll never raise them. They’ll always be $250 because I can’t paint very well, but it’s because it’s this idea that literally anybody can buy a painting. And so I want to keep that spirit, it’s an important part for me.”

    Mesler might be on to something. This type of accessibility is what modern viewers expect, with the internet providing immediacy to art. Creating personal, reasonably priced painting bring a tangibility that people desire. For the ferry ride to Frieze, Mesler is taking it a step further: his limited edition book featuring portraits from his Independent sessions has a blank cover, which Mesler is using as a canvas for watercolor portraits. People who purchase the limited edition book (and catch him on the 35th Street ferry) will each have a completely unique item. Though Mesler is still connected to the traditional art world, this is the kind of change he’s seeing, and helping bring to a wider audience. “The art world is going through a huge transformation now, and people are starting to question relevancy of galleries—clearly the world is open to new models. Being able to sit [and paint] on a bench outside is part of the new mix.”