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Kenn Kotara found quick success as an artist and has spent much of his career leaning away from it

Kenn Kotara in his studio
Matt Peiken | BPR News
Kenn Kotara in his studio with some of the works in his latest exhibition.

Kenn Kotara has a house just north of the Grove Park Country Club in Asheville. His studio out back is the size of a double-wide garage—a testament to Kotara’s success as a visual artist.

“At one point, it was so crazy that we were turning down jobs and commissions,.” Kotara said. “That consultant would come back and say ‘No, my client really wants your work, name your price.’

Kotara said he has sold art to collectors on six continents, and he estimates between 50 and 60 of his works are in Las Vegas’ most posh casinos. But on a morning in late April, Kotara walked around his studio and talked about his newest works—abstract paintings that are also sculptures and sculptures suspended in the air—and wondered aloud whether any of them would sell.

“The last solo show I had, in Atlanta, people walked in, like, ‘Oh, my god, this is elegant, beautiful work,’ but no one bought a single thing,” Kotara said. “And that’s kinda hard to take.”

Kotara said that work was minimal and quiet. His new work is a contrast—cellular patterns, grids like chaotic urban maps, explosions of line and color that seem organic. The surfaces, themselves, are often a jumble, comprised of cut-out shapes layered atop one another. He calls these works “shaped canvases.”

While his work lives in abstraction, the artist said social-political exploration is always at play. It’s right there in the title of his new show—”Order in an Unruly Zoo.” It’s on view through June 10 at the Black Mountain Center for the Arts.

“Some people have critiqued me for not having a cohesive body of work. People are like ‘You do so many different things, we can’t really tell what you’re going to do next,’ and I’m like ‘That’s the point of existing and creation,’” Kotara said. “I’m not working in a vacuum, but I do work diligently at staving off voices telling me how I should paint.”

Kotara grew up in Lake Charles, La., in a family and community he recalls as devoid of art. He said architecture studies lacked excitement, so he turned his schooling and career prospects to Texas and graphic design. All the while, he painted.

“In Texas, I started looking at farmlands, how we as humans begin to parcel off our properties,” he said. “So fencelines, roadways, they just became these vehicles for form.”

Kotara moved to Bat Cave about 25 years ago at the invitation of a friend who offered work in the textile industry. The move gave Kotara more time to paint and, after six months, he gave up the textile work entirely to devote himself to art. He said moving from the prairie to the mountains shifted his artwork from horizontal to vertical.

“And even the notion of why even succumb to the laws of gravity? That’s where it began to change,” he said.

Kotara’s paintings became sculptural. He discovered Braille as a means for adding texture and intention to his work. He found quick success in galleries in Raleigh, Charlotte and Atlanta. But as work began selling, Kotara resisted pressure to mimic his own work to keep the income rolling in. To this day, he said he takes great pains to focus his lens inward.

“Nowadays, everyone’s like ‘That’s fake news. What’s real? What are we connecting to? What ideologies do we place our feet in day by day?’” he said. “So a lot of this becomes very philosophical as a means for me to understand myself even better.”

For the past five years, Kotara has taught art on the faculty of Mars Hill University. That role has further empowered him to experiment with art and forms that sometimes he doesn’t seem motivated to sell. One such piece is a room-sized installation and accompanying art- photography book inspired by Donald Trump titled “Believe Me” and covered in reflective gold.

“I feel and I think that I’m tapping into the voice of today,” he said. “Whether it’s political, economic, social, environmental, I want to be relevant within my own language.”

Matt Peiken was BPR’s first full-time arts journalist.