Joel Mesler is weird. Delightfully weird. Unique to his environment. As an artist and an art dealer, Mesler orbits in a space known, at least superficially, as one more alienating than inviting, where the uninitiated are kept at bay with a percieved air of mystery and pretense. Mesler is the opposite of pretense. His humor and self-effacement feels like a refreshing discovery in a mass of white walls and concrete floors. For those looking to dip their toes into the art world, let Mesler be your gateway drug.
In 2000, Mesler opened a gallery called Rental in Downtown L.A.’s Chinatown. Seven years later, he moved Rental across the country, to the Lower East Side, right as the whole economy was about to unravel. (In the midst of the recession, in the summer of 2009, Mesler opened a show called “Don’t Panic I’m Selling My Collection.”) From there, came his UNTITLED gallery, then Feuer/Mesler. At the beginning of 2017, Feuer/Mesler closed its doors. Mesler moved to Long Island in the search for more room, good light, and a home base in the era of the middle market squeeze. The third iteration of Rental Gallery emerged this spring in East Hampton. It’s a nearly two-decade journey that Mesler speaks about candidly, from the substance-fueled peaks to the market-driven valleys.
His life as an art dealer is reflected in his work as an artist. In his figurative paintings, often economically rendered, Mesler ruminates on fear, doubt, fraudulence. Wizened hands draw out phrases like “I could have tried harder” and “I am happy successful and fulfilled.” Flamingos stand perched over the words “Art market” and “powder room.” Mesler is always in on the joke, too aware of reality to attempt disillusioning himself or others. Mistakes have been made, money’s been lost, lessons learned. A career, in short, and an impressive one at that.
Below, as he prepares to show a new body of his own work at NADA during Miami Art Week, Mesler took the time to talk culture wars, creating art in basements, and how to succeed and/or survive as an artist and/or art dealer.
What can we expect from the pieces you’ll be showing at NADA this year?
I’m working on a series of paintings that go through the alphabet, mining my childhood memories one letter at a time. B, C, and D will be at NADA. There will be a number of ceramics made by my wife, Sarah Aibel, which relate formally and conceptually to the paintings. NADA gave me a booth with an outside wall, so I’ve decided to bring five additional paintings that I’ll lean against the wall in a stack, so people can flip through them. Those paintings are from a series I call Works on Paper. All the works are pigment on linen, measuring 70 x 50 inches.
Has the move to the Hamptons informed these works at NADA?
I have found my voice.
How’s that Jackson Pollock light out there?
It’s beautiful when I am outside, but I’ve been making these paintings in the basement of the gallery so I rarely get to see any natural light.
Your True Confessions series for ARTnews is so honest and fresh. Do you ever feel there’s a backlash for being so candid about the industry?
Thank you for saying that. Never that sure who reads it and what people think. I’m sure there has been a backlash, but since we are in the business of culture wars, people don’t usually say things to your face. To be honest, I really wouldn’t care if there was a backlash against me. What would I lose? It’s not like my family would leave me. My health knows not what I write in art magazines. So no one in the art world can take away from me the things I am most grateful for. I suppose I could lose some of the financial freedom I have now, but I’m sure I’d figure out another way to buy food and pay my mortgage.
How has your work as an art dealer conflicted with your work as an artist, or vice versa?
Nice question. It’s always been in conflict–my entire life and career in the art world. I have never been financially successful as an artist, so I have always had to sell other people’s work to pay the bills. When doing anything for a period of time, you start to become that person. So I suppose when it went on too long, I was just considered an art dealer, even though all I wanted was to be an artist. During these phases of art dealing without making art, I would frame things from my life. I would gather ephemera and hang it in my office or the bathroom, kind of to say to myself, “Hey, Joel, you’re not just an art dealer.”
There’s nothing wrong with being an art dealer; I am just not one of them. This most recent phase of art making and only dealing art is seasonal, and has been a refreshing (restorative? fortifying? invigorating?) cycle. I won’t make art for four months in summer while I sell art and engage with people as an art dealer. Then when Labor Day rolls around, I can get jiggy again. I also am painting sober for the first time, so that is helping me to fully embrace being an artist. Also, people seem to like what I am doing at the moment, so I hope I get to keep doing it. I like being an artist.
What did the L.A. days of Rental Gallery look like?
Lots of drugs and alcohol. The gallery was next to my studio, which shared a wall with the bar Hop Louie, so for about three years I honestly didn’t leave this 1000-square feet of city. There were times when I had to go to the doctor or dentist or see my mom I would get into my car and it wouldn’t start because it sat for too long. Months would go. That’s why it’s funny that the platform for Rental was that of inviting other dealers outside of L.A. to Chinatown to host a show. Without that gallery, I might have not interacted with anyone except Jung and the other locals. To say I was isolated would be an understatement.
How different is this Hamptons iteration?
It’s a real gallery, but a seasonal gallery. I have a real assistant, a real bookkeeper, real programs on my computer, and real collectors that come visit and buy work from me.
Quality one needs to succeed/survive as an art dealer:
Depends on what type of art dealer you want to be. The range is pretty vast. One quality I wish I had that I don’t is family money. That helps.
Quality one needs to succeed/survive as an artist:
Depends on what type of artist you want to be.
What does a day look like you, from start to finish?
It’s very routine and structured intentionally for our children.
Do you listen to music while you work? If so, what?
Sometimes. The past month, I’ve been listening to Bill Callahan. Also this guy from northern Minnesota who has blown my mind. His name is Charlie Parr. He just bought his second guitar and lives in his car when he tours. Watching him play is like watching Jesus turn water into wine. (So I’ve heard.)
What material do you go through the most of?
Earth Pigments (mostly green).
What’s the difference between doing an art fair as a dealer versus going as an artist?
The last time I had a my art in a booth at an art fair was 2006 at the Armory Show with this gallery from L.A. called Black Dragon Society. I was showing a video of my birth. My father was a doctor so they allowed him to film the birth at Cedars-Sinai in 1974. I was very excited to be showing it, so I edition it, made 25 copies, did the cover of the DVD and drawings of some of the stills. I made sure to be there right at the beginning of the VIP opening of the fair. My girlfriend at the time came with me because she was so proud of me. Unfortunately the video freaked people out and made them stay away from the booth. The sounds of my mother screaming as I’m coming out is pretty intense. So after a few hours of this, my dealer told me he was going to remove the piece from his booth. I was to say the least devastated.
What you’re looking forward to with NADA:
Finding out if anyone is going to give a shit about these paintings.
What you’re dreading, if anything:
Finding out if anyone is going to give a shit about these paintings.