My grant arrived as I was embarking on a new series of works that were coincidentally quite expensive to produce... I spent $10,000 on video equipment and $10,000 on the mechanical elements... The best kind of money falls from the sky. With fewer and fewer options for individual arts grants, the Foundation's [awards] take on an even greater importance.
- Jon Kessler, January 28, 2002
When I began to exhibit in the early 1980s, my work took the form of shadow boxes attached to the wall. Found and fabricated objects were lit and mechanized, creating scenarios, both abstract and figurative. I left the sides open to expose the mechanisms—a simple shift in the viewer's position revealed the inner workings behind the scenes. The sculptures from the 1990s grew larger with higher production values.
After 9/11, I was haunted by the image of what the terrorists saw from the cockpit, so I decided to re-create it using a surveillance camera. Ever since, my work has gotten more political. However, the rawness and immediacy of my current work incorporates a playfulness that is reminiscent of sculptures I became known for in the 1980s. Mechanisms are visible with little or no attempt to “finish" the pieces. Once the sculptures work, I leave them in this prototype stage with the clamps and tape necessary to keep them assembled.
Since 2004, I have been creating room-sized video installations that occupy the space. These installations implicate the viewers, turning them into surveilling subjects and surveilled objects. This sets up a symbiotic relationship between the camera and the viewer, which continues inside as spectator and performer, voyeur and exhibitionist.
My interest in what happens between the viewer and the art object has remained consistent. My work continues to self-consciously play in that arena, controlling the spectator's experience of the piece, while also offering a glimpse of the machinery of that manipulation.
Jon Kessler is a mixed media artist known for kinetic sculptures that expose their mechanics to the viewer. These sculptures are often amalgams of analog and digital technology that have political implications. More recently, he has focused on developing immersive installation pieces. He plays guitar and harmonica with The X-Patsys, an art rock band he formed with actress Barbara Sukowa and artist Robert Longo.
For Kessler's solo exhibition Global Village Idiot at Deitch Projects in 2004, he began a new series of video sculptures and showed works developed with the support of his 2000 Grants to Artists award. This show led to his first New York museum exhibition, The Palace at 4 A.M. at MoMA PS1 in 2005. The Palace at 4 A.M. traveled to the Phoenix Kulturstiftung/Sammlung Falckenberg in Hamburg, the House of World Cultures in Berlin, and the Louisiana Museum in Denmark.
Since receiving his Grants to Artists award, Deitch Projects exhibited his video installation Kessler's Circus (2009). In 2011, Kessler collaborated with Mika Rottenberg on Seven, a performance and installation commissioned for Performa 11 at Nicole Klagsbrun Project Space. In 2013, Kessler exhibited The Web, a commission by The Métamatic Research Initiative in the Netherlands, at the Swiss Institute of Contemporary Art in New York. The work is a large-scale multimedia installation that examines the connection the body and societal obsessions with technology. The installation traveled to Museum Tinguely in Basel as part of Metamatic Reloaded, an exhibition of the ten projects commissioned by the Metamatic Research Initiative. In 2012 Salon 94 Bowery exhibited Kessler's The Blue Period (2007/2011), an installation that featured small-scale sculptures, video monitors, surveillance cameras, life-size cardboard figures, and collaged portraits from his residency at Dieu Donné.
Kessler's work is now in the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, Walker Art Center, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. His work has been featured in exhibitions worldwide including the Fisher Landau Center for Art, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Carnegie Museum of Art, The Drawing Center, Park Avenue Armory, and Israel Museum.
Prior to his 2000 FCPA grant, Kessler was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1983 and 1985, the St. Gaudens Memorial Fellowship in 1995, and a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in 1996.
He received a B.F.A. from the State University of New York at Purchase in 1980 and completed The Independent Study Studio Program at The Whitney Museum of American Art in the same year. Kessler has been a professor at the Columbia University School of the Arts since 1994.