The Rapidian

Artist Jeff Kraus explores ambiguity, symbolism in large scale paintings

Jeff Kraus explains why he paints in the abstract and the meaning behind his work, living in Grand Rapids and balancing making art while touring full time with his band.
A 4'x6' commissioned piece Kraus did for GVSU.

A 4'x6' commissioned piece Kraus did for GVSU. /Courtesy of Jeff Kraus

Kraus' work hanging on the walls of the Hunt and Gather store space.

Kraus' work hanging on the walls of the Hunt and Gather store space. /Courtesy of Jeff Kraus

Kraus' studio space.

Kraus' studio space. /Courtesy of Jeff Kraus

Large-scale abstract paintings of imaginative symbols hiding beneath sweeping brush strokes portray hazy planes of emotion. Jeff Kraus’ work is all but defined by ambiguity.

Kraus, a Grand Rapids-based painter and printmaker, creates large-scale pieces of art with a heavy focus on texture, quality of line and raw emotion. His medium of choice is acrylic and house paint, along with graphite and charcoal.

Kraus’ studio is located at Hunt and Gather (740 Curve St SW), a vintage home-decor and furniture shop owned by Kelley and Troy Howley. Kraus’ studio is in the back of the warehouse-like space, while some of his paintings hang on the walls of the shop space.

The relationship between Kraus and Hunt and Gather came about when Kelley Howley, while working at GVSU, met Kraus in his studio and ended up selling some of his paintings in the store. When the Howleys decided they wanted to expand Hunt and Gather, Kraus suggested the space they now reside in. Kraus and Hunt and Gather then moved in and were able to design the space so that Kraus' studio had enough privacy, but nothing was too closed off.

"I think it was a nice decision to kind of combine things and help each other out," he says.

Kraus is represented by a Los Angeles-based online gallery and has had numerous solo and group exhibitions dating back to 2008. In 2014, he was a part of three group exhibitions in Grand Rapids, Chicago and New York City as well as three solo exhibitions all in Grand Rapids. Last year he had work up at Rowster Coffee, Madcap Coffee and Gaspard Gallery. Kraus’ work can also be seen in the UICA lounge.

Kraus went to Grand Valley State University and received a BFA in printmaking in 2011. About halfway through his time there, he took his first painting class, which he says he “basically failed.” He knew he wanted to paint abstractly, but before getting to that point, he was required to get through the basics, like still life and figure drawing classes. Kraus didn't let early faltering stop him. His next class was lead by a professor who saw his potential and drive and gave him the freedom to just paint what he wanted.

Kraus was never interested in portraiture- he felt enough people were doing it. His work is also very much influenced by his experienced in printmaking. He says he took printmaking because he was drawn to line quality, “and that’s why there’s a lot of drawing in my paintings.”

Inspired by artists like Willem de Kooning and Jean-Michel Basquiat, when he started to really get into making work, he turned to their art for direction.

“I basically just copied them for a while, figured out how they got to where they were and then figured out how to make it my own with my own symbols and characters,” he says.

During his time at Grand Valley, Kraus says really had a drive to make work, so he painted all the time, he says, and made “probably over 100” paintings.

Kraus’ work is not representative. He says he’s more interested in the abstract because of what he can communicate through it and how different people can walk away with different ideas of what his work is all about.

“I like the ambiguous nature of it,” he says.

Creating what he refers to as a dictionary of symbols, he’s able to consistently use made-up symbols and characters from painting to painting, many of which the meanings change over time.

“I reuse a lot of the same stuff but the meanings change a lot,” he says. “They kind of tell a story but I don’t necessarily let anyone know what that story is.”

For instance, he explains that his series of all white paintings are about a trip to he took to Honduras. The work represents the feeling of being in another country.

“There’s a lake there that I went out on and canoed and spent some time on,” he says. “I wanted the paintings to feel as though you’re underwater, so that’s why they’re all white, super hazy... things are sort of coming in and out of focus.”

Kraus says that his paintings do not generally depict representative concepts, but rather feelings and emotions. The emotions he says he’s most often drawn to portraying within his work are anxiety and fear.

“They’re very personal depictions of different periods of my life,” he says, “Because they’re so ambiguous, different people can pull different things out of them and I don’t necessarily have to tell them what it’s about, nor do I really want to.”

Kraus has been represented by an online gallery based out of L.A. called Tappan Collective for two years. The gallery features and sells his work online and he ships it out from Grand Rapids.

“I submitted some images to the Hyperalleric blog and [Tappan Collective] found me and emailed me,” he says. “They just kind of picked me up and I’ve been working with them ever since. They're really awesome.”

Kraus doesn’t have any plans to move out of Grand Rapids. He says he can do just as much with his art here as any other city and doesn’t think it matters so much where you live anymore.

Kraus's own experience is proof of that: he is able to work with his gallery in L.A. and has done group shows in New York and L.A all while living here in Grand Rapids.

“I was born and raised in Michigan. I just like it here,” he says. “I like the pace and I think Grand Rapids has a lot of really cool things happening and I want to stick it out and see what it’s going to be like.”

Kraus sees room for his working style beyond the fine art world.

“With the scale I like to work with I think it can lend itself to doing something like murals or like the truck,” he says. “I don’t want to just make paintings to go to people’s homes.”

Kraus painted a grip truck for the Grand Rapids based film company, Gorilla. He also did the album artwork for the band The Soil and The Sun’s last record, and is currently working on album art for a local band called the Bangups.

Kraus has also been playing music since he was 15; when he’s not working on his artwork, he’s drumming for the Detroit-based post-punk band, Child Bite. He’s been with the band since 2014 and they’re currently on tour.

“All of 2014 we did a lot of touring, wrote a record and wrote on the road a lot and then at the end of the year, we wrote another record and went and recorded it down in New Orleans in April,” he says.

While recording their album, the band was offered numerous touring opportunities. So, Kraus says, they booked out the entire year.

“I quit my job and moved out of my house and now I’m just in a band full time,” he says. “Right now I am trying to juggle still trying to make art but be gone all the time.”


With so much time focusing on his band in the past year, he's looking forward to getting back into the studio in August, with goals of creating a whole new body of work this fall.

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