Distilling The Essence
The Art Of Keith Mantell
We often imagine an artist speaking to his/her canvas, but for Keith Mantell it is not a one-way monologue but a dialogue. “In my experience, there is no A to Z. It’s a much more organic process” says Mantell, “At some point, the painting starts telling me how it’s going to work. ‘Here’s what you need to do to make me a successful painting,’ whether it’s toning something down or making something more prominent.” Mantell also feels the more synergistic his relationship with his subject, the more he can capture its truth. Time spent in the setting or getting to know his model elevates the connection and resulting essence of the painting. Raised on Long Island and living in Riverhead, he has a life-long connection to the local natural beauty. He works exclusively with oil paint, “It takes a lifetime to master and I love what it can do” for figurative and works featuring local scenes. Regarding our farm fields, vineyards and coastlines, “I want to capture them before they disappear,” he explains.
Mantell earned a B.F.A. from SUNY New Paltz and took post graduate courses at the National Academy School of Fine Arts in New York and C.W. Post College. He learned valuable lessons along the way, “When I was at New Paltz, there was one teacher who was a student of Hans Hofmann. He was a cool guy but tough. He taught me two things: You will be a better artist tomorrow than you are today so everything you do today you’ll learn from. That experience and knowledge is taken forward. Don’t have an ego about your work. Secondly, everything is based on the cube and the tube. You can break anything down. You go from general to specific.”
Working for Sotheby’s Auction House in New York also served as a great art education, evaluating masters of many different schools and periods of art. But it was the works which were more mistake than masterpiece which taught him the most. “I’d go back into the bins,” says Mantell, “And see some works by Picasso on a bad day. I could put those into context next to the great ones.”
Seizing an opportunity to come out East to run the Chrysalis Art Gallery in Southampton, Mantell found a place to discover and sell local artists including one of his favorites, Bill St. Pierre, who was in high school at the time. He also found personal happiness, reconnecting with a college crush who became his wife. In 2007, after managing the gallery for ten years, he decided to turn back to his own painting and received encouragement from the artistic community that this was indeed his creative path. He has found a gallery that is not only a place to sell his work but an epicenter for the arts. The William Ris Gallery in Jamesport is what he describes as a breath of fresh air, “I love meeting people and talking about art and hanging out with artists and the creative side of my world. It’s behind the Sherwood House Vineyards so people will stop by for a glass of wine and see the work.”
In terms of his personal style, Mantell eschews precision for evoking a feeling. He explains, “Looking and seeing are two different things. You have to understand something to see it. I like a looser interpretation. You don’t have to paint every finger. One of the best portraits I’ve seen was in a recent Christie’s sale, a Cezanne. It was the way that he carved with the paint – he sculpted this guy. You look at him, and you know him. He has a life.”
While Mantell knows the life for local artists can often be challenging, especially economically, he still follows his old teacher’s advice, knowing that with every painting, you become a better artist.