Story telling with a brilliant palette
THE ART OF KEVIN T. KELLY
By William M. Welch
When he was honing his vision as an artist’s assistant in New York City, Kevin T. Kelly told his gallery representative that ”my ultimate goal was to make a painting that you have to view through a welder’s helmet, bright.“
No such protective lenses are needed for viewing his work, but he’s getting close. Kelly’s art is often described as Neo-Pop or Post-Pop,incorporating bright, deeply saturated colors that jump at the viewer from crisp lines that render and reduce familiar imagery to the essential elements.
Kelly infuses his work with humor, allegory and social commentary, reflecting contemporary issues, historical references and universal human desires and emotions.
His use of color demands attention even in a digital world where limitless palettes leap from every computer, video, tablet and mobile screen in commercial competition for human eyeballs. Kelly somehow manages to turn wall space into a visual carnival, as he puts it, in ways that stand apart and look fresh.
”I call it a hyperchromatic palette,“ says Kelly. ”I’ve always been drawn to that graphically reduced image pared down to its barest essentials with really bright colors. I think I’ve pushed that part even more.“
Kelly, 53, is a contemporary American artist who works from a studio in Cincinnati, Ohio, a city often considered quintessentially representative of the nation’s heartland. He grew up and still lives across the Ohio River in Kentucky, where as a child he was inspired to draw and sculpt. He took his formal training and earned a fine arts degree at the Art Academy of Cincinnati before heading to New York, where pluck and drive landed him a job as studio assistant to artist Tom Wesselmann, himself a Cincinnati native.
Wesselmann, who died in 2004, was closely associated with the American pop art movement, and his brilliant colors and juxtaposition of everyday objects clearly influenced Kelly’s artistic evolution. Kelly worked for him for six years, at the same time staking out hisown visual direction, holding gallery showings and establishing his reputation before returning home to work as an artist in the 1990s.
Another pop artist of the period, Roy Lichtenstein, whose visual imagery borrowed from comic books and Sunday newspaper funny pages, is also an influence. Kelly points to non-visual artists as well as inspirations: postmodernist writer William S. Burroughs and songwriter and actor Kris Kristofferson, for their individualistic style, biting commentary and impact on popular culture.
”To be honest, if I had to put my finger on how his writing influenced my painting, I couldn’t,“ he says of Burroughs. ”But I read everything he has written. I used to say I want to make paintings exactly the way he writes.“
Kelly’s favorite among his own work is one of his most popular pieces. Titled ”Grandma’s Cookin’,“ its foreground is filled with the faces of a smiling, white-haired couple. In his thought bubble, a plate of comfort-food pancakes. In hers, lustful desire.
There are psychological elements and narrative storytelling at work. In one piece, titled ”Club Lust,“ a man in a robe lovingly admires a golf club while his frustrated partner waits in bed.
Other works use World War II and aviation imagery, set against personal relationships, or suggestions of them. In one: a fighter airplane under attack, an embracing couple, a downed pilot keeping his head above water. Another: a nose-diving airplane, a couple, and a pilot with a ”Dear John letter.“ Another: aerial dogfights behind a naked, coupled couple.
In Kelly’s art, sex is present as a universal life force. ”It’s a human physical force that really is pervasive throughout society,“ he says. ”It’s overt or it’s suggested. But it’s always there.“
Many of these paintings are crafted on a large scale, using acrylic on canvases as big as 12 feet by 12 feet. Breitling incorporates selections from Kelly’s work into its marketing, and Kelly says the patronage has helped him develop his vision and direction. The fighter planes, pilots and combat imagery echo Breitling’s association with aviation and rugged individualism. At another level, Kelly’s works are in keeping with the precision of fine movements and complications: his razor-sharp lines reflect a similar painstaking craftsmanship. As Kelly works on his paintings, each shape is carefully taped off and masked before paint is applied, producing delineations that could be machine-carved.
Some of Kelly’s works are on display in Breitling’s boutique stores in New York and elsewhere around the world. For recent Breitling art, Kelly has begun working digitally, creating images on a computer and outputting them to large canvas via inkjet printer.
”I’m really proud,“ he says of his relationship with Breitling. ”They’ve been a great client and patron. It’s pretty neat. The Breitling store in New York is kind of like the Kevin Kelly museum. It makes me feel good."
Much of his art, he says, has an autobiographical element that grows from the struggles of daily life, expressed in dark humor or cynicism. I paint a lot of dysfunction,“ he says. ”In retrospect, they were really about psychologically processing things going on in my life.“
Allegories spring from personal difficulties, misunderstandings, ”he said-she said“ miscommunications – human problems inherent to developing and keeping meaningful relationships in the accelerating, shrinking postmodern world.
”For me it’s all about this kind of shifting, swirling turmoil that seems to exist, or at least has existed in just about every relationship I’m in,“ he says. ”That’s where it comes from. Most are autobiographical.“
As his career and artistic vision advance, Kelly has begun refocusing on smaller works that grow from the world where he lives, including the pastoral scenery of rural middle America. These canvases use strong if subtler coloring and highly reductive images – a barn, a curving country road, a pastel sky.
In some ways, the change in direction is physically driven. It’s harder to paint huge canvases as one ages, and harder still to move them. But it also reflects where Kelly’s experiences have taken him. In his free time, he likes to practice tai chi, the ancient Chinese martial art of methodical movement, and hiking, which he pursues from Spain to the vast American West.
Kelly has developed a second front for his art, one where subtlety and softness replace bold, hard-edged, impossible to ignore visual metaphors. ”The other pieces were more about communicating by visually yelling,“ he says. ”The landscapes are more about whispering.“