It was a chilly Cincinnati day when the BLDG crew headed to the Essex to check out Kevin Kelly’s studio. But that didn’t stop us from having an in-depth conversation with Kevin about his work and what fuels his fire.
Q. The BLDG Gallery exhibits urban contemporary art. How do you fit into that movement?
KK: I’ve been thinking about this recently and I feel like I just woke up. That for me is the allure of this opportunity. It’s probably the best fit that I’ve had in Cincinnati because stylistically, I’ve never really fit with other galleries in the area. You guys get my work and you appreciate it.
BLDG: There are fine lines between art, branding and BS. How do you make work that doesn’t focus on the BS?
KK: There’s a certain level of elitism that’s pervasive in the art world. Years ago, I wanted to be an art star. It was the 80s man. I was convinced I was going to have a posse, show up in a limo, the whole nine yards. And then, at some point, you realize that only the elitists understand your work and the rest of the world doesn’t get it. And that just doesn’t work. It’s got to be relatable and that’s why I focus on the narrative and tell stories. When I taught conceptual drawing, I would tell my students that you have to tell a story. That’s where I think post-modernism has failed.
BLDG: Clearly your relationship Tom Wesselmann was a big influence in your life and at one point you drew stylistic inspiration from his work. How do you feel about him now and does his work still serve as a major influence?
KK: He was definitely a huge influence and I still look at his work all the time. I often think, “damn what a genius.” Most people only think of him as the guy who did the big tits in the 60s. Having worked for him, I was able to see his work from the time he started until the time he died. He only painted landscapes, nudes, still-lifes and maybe some abstractions. There wasn’t anything theoretical behind it and he always said he wasn’t interested in narratives.
I don’t necessarily look to him for inspiration now, like I may have at one time. There’s enough water under the bridge. My palette is my own and there’s a language I’ve developed. There’s a deeper meaning that I’m trying to achieve that has a psychological component. It’s all about the narrative, establishing the metaphors and trying to create a bond with the viewer that pulls them in. Really, I’m interested in what they bring to the conversation and sometimes their questions are more important than the answers.
BLDG: What do you do to keep yourself relatable?
KK: I got to the point where I quit worrying about it. I would read Art News and Art in America and I would think to myself this is bullshit. I used to get so pissed when I would read that stuff. And now, I say fuck it, I don’t even care anymore. I’m just going to make the best stuff that I can and not worry about being relevant. There’s an old saying I had when I was selling meat. I was really good. I was a national trainer and I sold meat in like 15 states. If you want to make your $300/day, you gotta knock doors. You can’t fuck around all day. If you do the work, the money will follow. And that’s what I believe.
BLDG: What’s next for you?
KK: You know, that’s interesting. I’ve recently started to think about where it’s all going. The process is accelerating for me. I am really interested in direct drawing; the marker on paper kind of thing where I can drive around and just sketch. I see myself moving in that direction but there are a lot of things I’m thinking through at the moment. After hooking up with you guys, I feel like this dam has opened up and it’s like I can go in any direction, it’s really exciting.
BLDG: Final thoughts?
KK: I’ve always painted by the courage of my convictions. And I let the chips fall where they may. I approach every painting like it’s the last one I’m going to make. I figure that’s all you can do. You can’t ask any more of yourself. If you’re just going through the motions, you’re probably in it for the wrong reasons.