A CONVERSATION WITH KEVIN T. KELLY
BY SHAWN DANIELL
Friday, July 29, 2011
The artwork of Kevin T. Kelly, a local artist currently working in Cincinnati, Ohio, is a meditation on current culture, interpersonal relationships, communication and past experiences. Kelly produces both vibrant works of Pop Art ; that revelsl in clean lines and bold colors, and tranquil landscapes that invoke a feeling of calm. Amidst preparations for two art openings, Kelly talked to ArtSeen about his artwork and his artistic process.
Can you tell us a little about your artwork and your artistic process?
My work has always been of a figurative nature, and for the past twenty years, executed in a Pop style. Appropriating mass media imagery from various sources, I typically create narratives based upon both rumination and personal experience, often focusing on the issues of relationships and miscommunication. Recently I've turned to the landscape as a response to my interest in Tai chi, Qi Quong and meditation. Seen together, both bodies of work present an interesting and seemingly incongruent contrast; the Pop paintings are boisterous, explosive, and demanding (Yang), while the landscapes are serene, introspective and reticent (Yin). With the landscape series, I thought I'd arrived at an irreconcilable schism... split personalities each vying for expression. But I've come to realize it's more a tonal modulation of visual speech... communicating with a whisper rather than a roar. The lessons I've learned in painting the landscapes are beginning to carry over into the Pop works and I think both directions will eventually coalesce into a synergistic new direction.
Drawing plays a major role in my creative process and is of paramount importance. It is the primary vehicle I use to get from the initial idea to the finished painting. Drawing is an elusive term and difficult to define, but it's parameters encompass virtually every stage in the development of my imagery. It is perhaps more a mental than physical process, in that the act of drawing is really a state of refining. These refinements occur incrementally throughout various stages which initially include collage, sketching in graphite and colored pencil, and then ultimately, “drawing with tape” and cutting masks with an x-acto knife when painting. From the preliminary sketches to the canvas, every stage involves drawing, because the image is in a state of flux until the final coat of varnish is applied.
What inspires you as an artist? Why do you create art?
Those are questions I've been asking myself for many years. And I believe the answer is the channeling of a higher form of energy or Spirit. The creative process is really a spiritual process, in that the artist is reaching past his comfort level to a place beyond this physical dimension and bringing back what he finds. It's an expansion of perception that most people never tap into. When I was a student I would say, “I want to paint the way Kris Kristofferson makes music” or “I want to paint the way William S. Burroughs writes”. I didn't have a definition for it then, but I've come to realize what I was attempting to describe, was vision and conviction... the manifestation of spirit. It moves through the artist like a summer's breeze, you don't know where it comes from, but you're certainly aware when it's with you and when it's not. It's difficult to say what specifically inspires me, because the sources are so varied... love, loss, a picture or article in a magazine, a conversation, a billboard, a rainstorm... everything becomes a syllable in a continuous dialogue with the Universe.
What types of themes, ideas, or concepts do you explore within in your artwork?
With the Pop work, the process of idea generation is typically one of emotionally emptying out. Processing emotions which have held a negative charge and rendering them neutral. Many of my works address the complexity of interpersonal relationships and often, misunderstanding and miscommunication between the sexes. Other themes include feminism, the shifting paradigm of gender roles and sexual mores in Post WWII America, and of course flaming aerial dogfights (one of my favorite visual metaphors). For me, it's a process of looking at life's issues, then stepping back and trying to see the other side, another facet or perspective, like a Rubik's cube and finding the humor in it. Once you find the humor, the pain dissipates. Ultimately, I suppose it's a way of telling the ego to sit down and shut up.
The landscapes are also about emptying out, both emotionally and mentally. I began meditating four years ago and adopted the disciplines of Tai Chi and Qi Quong shortly thereafter. All three practices involve quieting the mind. Within these disciplines I found a calmness and serenity I haven't known for many years and wanted to convey those feelings in my work. The intention was to present a series of intimate meditations, devoid of circumstance and free of any personal, political or social consideration.To simply create beautiful images of nature in a state of becoming that the viewer could step into and relax.
In some of your work there is a strong sexual presence, can you talk about this aspect of your work?
In a world of rapidly shifting paradigms, sex is used both covertly and overtly as psychological triggers to sell everything from new cars to political candidates. From the traditional media to the internet, the average person is subjected daily to a continual barrage of imagery and messages which test the limit of their sensibilities. Some of the narratives I create are based upon personal observations regarding intimacy and relationships; how relationships often begin with an intense, feral attraction and later evolve (or devolve) into something entirely different. Unions are seldom equitable and because of a lack of communication, duplicity or any number of a myriad other reasons, the once passionate relationship degenerates into one of complacency and convenience. The sexual images are merely one facet of an ongoing exploration of the vagaries of interpersonal relationships.
For those who aren't familiar with the Postmodern Pop movement, can you tell us a little about it and what it encompasses?
Postmodern Pop isn't a movement, it's a descriptive term I coined for my website. Generally speaking, people want convenient boxes in which to categorize everything, so I came up with a name to let people know the Pop Art I create is removed from the generation of artists preceding me. The Pop Art of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Tom Wesselmann was a comment upon and used imagery derived from popular culture. The work I create has its origins in mass media of course, but is then filtered through a personal prism of reflection and introspection to create allegories of the human condition that I hope transcend the original sources. My dealer, Bruce R. Lewin has referred to my work as The Thinking Man's Pop Art. My objective is to open a dialogue with the viewer vis-a-vis the image, which will continue long after the viewing experience is over. I'm more interested in the questions the work provokes in the viewer's mind than the answers they hope to elicit from me.
I think we're approaching the end of Postmodernism, if we haven't arrived already. There's a quote I love by author, Ken Wilber, “Just as rational modernity previously exhausted its forms and gave way to aperspectival postmodernity, so now the postmodern itself is on a morbid death watch, with nothing but infinitely mirrored irony to hold its hand, casting flowers where they will not be missed. The skull of postmodernity grins on the near horizon, and in the meantime, we are between two worldviews, one slowly dying, one not yet born.” There's not much contemporary art I find interesting these days. Most of what one sees championed in the art journals and New York galleries is nothing more than visual regurgitation of politically correct social and political agendas, as vacuous and bankrupt as the Federal Government.
Are there any artists that inspire you? If so who would they be and why?
It's said, “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear” and the artists who've inspired me most are those I met and became friends with at critical turning points in my life. All are men and women of remarkable talent, wit, intellect and generosity. They appeared like signposts to point the way whenever I faced a fork in the road of this journey.
I was fortunate to meet W.D. (Bill) Gaither when I was a senior in High School. A successful wildlife artist of international acclaim, Bill returned to our common hometown of Ludlow, KY in 1977. He became a dear friend and mentor and was largely responsible for my decision to enroll in the Art Academy of Cincinnati six years later.
Upon graduating from the Art Academy in 1987, I was hired as manager of Closson's Art Gallery in Cincinnati. I realized early on, managing a gallery was of little interest to me, but it afforded the opportunity to meet the best, brightest and most talented artists in the city. It was here I met and became friends with Tom Bacher, Michael Scott, Cole Carothers, J.D. Biggs, Jack Meanwell, Thom Shaw, Greg Storer, Ballard Borich, Terry Boyle, Leslie Shiels and Jim Wainscot. These artists became a core inner circle of friends whom I've learned much from over the years and continue to provide the inspiration, guidance and advice when I need it most. It was Tom Bacher who convinced me to move to New York City in 1988.
The artist whose inspired me most was the late Tom Wesselmann. I worked for six years as a studio assistant for Tom when I lived in New York City in the late eighties and early nineties. A giant in the international art world and 20th century master, he was also one the most soft spoken, sincere and generous people I've ever known. With Tom, I was exposed to a level of dedication and discipline I never knew existed. I saw first hand the career of the serious artist parallels the journey of life. It's about immersion; living and breathing it on a daily basis. That continual exploration and incremental changes add up to an enormous transformation over the course of a lifetime. And no matter how deeply you plumb the depths of the creative spirit, you'll never reach the bottom.
I suppose the true inspiration I gain from these artists is the friendship and camaraderie we share. The “realness” of it. The ebb and flow, the ups and downs, the victories and losses experienced on this river of life. And I'm grateful to be blessed with so many talented people I can truly call friends.
For you, what do you think the role of the artist is?
For me, it's about visually communicating an idea that's more than the sum of its visual parts. I'm striving for transcendence. To convey the sublime. To establish a dialogue with the viewer and open multiple lines of query that will remain long after the viewing experience has passed.
What's the best and worst part about being an artist? As an artist how do you stay motivated?
Paradoxically, the best and worst parts about being an artist are one and the same. As an artist it's almost as if you live in a perpetually altered state of consciousness. It's a rarefied vision of heightened awareness that's beyond the scope of most people. It's also a path of jettisoning the trappings and security of tribal thinking and becoming a true individual. The experience is exhilarating beyond words, but it's also sometimes unnerving and can get lonely out there.
Ironically, motivation usually comes through relaxation. If I find myself stuck or frustrated, the easiest way out is to meditate or do something relaxing to clear the mind of the obstruction. When the mind is clear, the inspiration flows naturally.
And finally, what advice would you give to emerging artists?
Become durable. This path is an endurance test, so approach it like a Warrior. It isn't so much about talent as it is courage, tenacity and discipline. Perfect your craft. Don't take yourself too seriously, but approach your work with deadly seriousness. Focus within and let the work flow from what your heart tells you. All the rest is bullshit... intellectual masturbation.
Kelly will have artwork displayed in the group show, "One New Painting-A Summer Invitational" , at Frames Designs in Cincinnati, Ohio, openingJuly 29and running through Sept. 3. He will also have artwork displayed at the group show, "Artists As Activists" at The Artisans Enterprise Center (AEC) in Covington, Kentucky, showing Aug 5 through Sept 23. For more information about Kelly and his artwork you can visit hiswebsite for more details.
All photography provided by Kevin T. Kelly
July 29, 2011