When I talk to artist Kevin Grass, he's sweating in his Tarpon Springs backyard. Some marauding moles have put holes in the lining of his koi pond, and so Grass is spending his Saturday in handyman mode. The koi are swimming in his bathtub. There's a note of frustration in his voice as he takes a breather to answer my questions.
"People think the paintings just happen," he says. "But art takes time." In Grass's case, an immense amount of time: His nearly-photorealistic paintings can take up to 400 hours to complete. When you add in his full-time teaching job at St. Petersburg College in Clearwater, there is little time for messing with pond linings — or chatting with nosy journalists, for that matter.
Thankfully, though, Grass is getting rewarded for his labors: he was just given the first-ever [PLATFORM] Artist of the Year Award, which includes a cash advance and a significant distribution contract. Grass is optimistic that it could take some pressure off of his schedule. But as befits his art, he's not too optimistic.
Grass paints brightly-lit dioramas of American disquiet. In them, mobs mount Black Friday raids on Wal-Mart, and nutjobs shoot handguns at mirrors. His brushwork is similar to that of a high-level portraitist or landscape painter — Grass dabbles a bit in both genres, actually — but in the figure paintings, his technique is bent in a different, harsher direction. These are family portraits suitable for hanging in our collective broken home.
"They're about America," he says. "Apathy. Stupidity."
Grass calls himself a "representational" artist, but the work is undeniably surreal — and like all good surrealists, the impact depends on his exceptional craft. He came by his skills honestly: Growing up in Ste. Genevieve, Mo., he apprenticed with the town's lone professional artist, a sculptor of fine art nudes. Grass sketched the artist's finished pieces. Other gigs had him making campaign ads and car decorations: a catalogue of Midwestern ephemera.
Fittingly, his experience of learning a craft has influenced his own teaching. He encourages his students to prepare for a real-world profession.
"When I teach a class, they have to come out ready to do those jobs," he says. "It can't all be conceptual work… Only one percent of the clients are interested in that, and those may not have the money."
Given his realpolitik approach to art, he's understandably excited that the recent award netted him a contract with Thomas Kinkade's old agency — "Worked out pretty well for him," Grass observes.
It's also understandable that he sees a link between his work and Norman Rockwell's — Grass shares Rockwell's hyperreal style, and a strong emphasis on narrative in his paintings. But my, how the picture has changed. Instead of "The Four Freedoms," Grass is more likely to paint "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse."
"I think that if Norman Rockwell was around today, they'd be very different paintings," Grass said. "This is a different country from when he was alive. People don't have the same kind of hope."
But has the picture really deteriorated so much in the intervening decades? Or are both artists simply experts at giving patrons the America they want to see — in the 1940s, hurrahing patriotism, in the 2010s, jaundiced reality? Kevin Grass doesn't have time to dwell on that now: The day's a-wasting, and the koi are still swimming in his bathtub.