Interview by Rachel Hutcheson
Kelly was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. She received her BFA in Studio Art from Hollins University and MFA from the University of North Carolina Greensboro. In 2015, she was awarded a Virginia Museum of Fine Arts professional fellowship. She has exhibited at The Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, Amuse at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the University of Mary Washington and Eric Schindler Gallery, among many others. In addition to painting, she is a musician, formerly of Peace Beast and currently with the band Ladygod. She lives and works in Richmond, Virginia.
Petit Jean, 2018. Oil on canvas, 44 x 40 inches.
Kelly’s work is abstract and often brightly colored with impasto strokes mixed with more transparent layering. A superb colorist, her paintings take form as a series of intuitive responses: she starts by working from found images and from there develops a pallet and loose composition, seeking to translate lived experiences of the beautiful and the absurd into paint. I sat down with Kelly to discuss her process, how her work has changed in the last few years, as well as what she’s working on now. We went into her studio; the workspace is cheerfully cluttered with painting materials on worktables and shelves and a few works in progress (in the early stages she tells me). I take a seat in one of the back seats from her old van and she sits on a low, wheeled stool.
RH: What led you to pursue art, has painting always been a pursuit?
KQ: What drew me to painting, and what has kept me working with paint are two different but related aspects. What drew me in is simply the process- the color exploration that happens over time. You can have this color experience that is parallel to reality, yet separate. When you walk away from the painting you realize you actually see color differently, you notice different things. You’re in total awe of the world, but you don’t really have anywhere to put that feeling except back into the painting. It’s also this ability to communicate outside the spoken word- the fact that most of painting is just a series of moments that say: “this” and then “this” or “perhaps that”, like a series of hypotheses is just beautifully enigmatic to me.
But the ultimate attraction to painting lies in its persistence, both as an object/image and how it can defy irrelevance. Like when you encounter it, it either has a presence or it does not. That is the challenge every time you approach a new work, but there are infinite paths to that presence.
Claw, 2017. Oil on canvas, 12 x 12 inches.
RH: Who are artists that inspire you?
KQ: I draw a lot of inspiration from other contemporary abstract art- mostly watching for the decision-making or evolution in others works: Amy Sillman comes to mind first. When I started following her in 2006 her work appealed because she was allowing the seen world into her abstraction in an extremely inventive way. Her paintings also rest beautifully, and I take a lot from that; when you notice each form, mark in turn it can seems so varying, so wild, but when you fluctuate back to the whole in a millisecond you realize they sit as if destined. In content, they seem to be about thinking to me, the rhythms of thought as you encounter the seen world, or remember it, reflect on a certain time and all the nuances that created that certain moment.
Also Squeak Carnwath: her playfulness is astounding. Her work reminds me to reach outside of what I think a painting should be. Her work is like something I always keep cooking on the back-burner, to be accessed when I think there’s a dead-end. She reminds me that there is no such thing.
Also, Jonathan Lasker, Sangram Majumdar and Daniel Richter are some other contemporaries I refer to frequently. Lasker for the way his bluntness of form functions, Majumdar for his skillful marriage of the figure/form with the abstract, and Richter for his sort of fever-dream reality he creates.
Looking back, I’d also have to mention Terry Winters, Grace Hartigan, Francis Bacon, Joan Mitchell, and Wassily Kandinsky. You have all these masters floating around in your mind and in the studio but I really think all of that goes into one pile of inspiration. There is an equal part of inspiration reserved for primary experience such that the beach you go to, or the way your neighbor’s roof looks against the sky or the way light hits your bathroom wall occupy just as much if not more of your mind when you approach the canvas. That’s really not intended to be flippant, but it’s the reality of painting- I think in order to create anything fresh the encounter is really what happens between you and that canvas.
Three magazines are sprawled on the floor in front of us, they are open to seemingly unrelated pages – a rocky mountain-scape, an archaeological dig, a group of people. But some similarities emerge, they share a reddish earth tone, some forms are echoed in their composition. Intrigued by this set up, I ask how she creates abstract paintings from photographic source material.
RH: Regarding your process, you pull images that you find from National Geographic?
KQ: Just whatever I encounter, it often does happen to be that, because I have so many, and they’re like, endlessly beautiful. [I also] cut them out, play with them [so that] interactions happen.
R: The magazines that you have laid out are very figurative but they also look archaeological, like an excavation, some indigenous people and some landscapes-this is really different from what you paint…
KQ: Totally, yea, it often is. I think it works best when it’s intuitive and I don’t think too hard about how it’s going to translate. And I love that part of the process because that’s the part where I don’t try to reign it in at all and I’m just responding. And obviously that does happen in the process of painting too, but that initial aspect is super just loose. Something here is pulling me in, and sometimes it’s the pallet, sometimes the form, sometimes the pose I mean it’s less that it’s about the figure and it’s more like the rhythm there and the pallet. Especially in that middle one. Um, I was struggling to find neutrals that I liked I knew I was gravitating to that because of that
I’ll make some notes in my sketchbook, but often I’ll just have them around. The first step of painting is similar to that. Just going based on palette, like I’ll mix the palette and do the first layer. That’s what these both are [gestures to the two canvases beside us], this is not necessarily going any place. I will sit with these in this stage for a long time before I make a next move. And that’s when the real decision making comes. That’s why it sits for a long time.
RH: So, it sits, developing a palette for a long time.
RH: This is something of a push-pull, you say you are always reacting- to the photographs and to the “percolating” canvas which is really fascinating.
KQ: It’s like stirring the pot, what I’m after is, I’m after something elusive which is a sense of wonder. Stirring the pot trying to get there and what seems to work is that process, a gathering, a percolating period, usually after that once I go back this will be just crazy- intensive painting for a few days. Tearing my hair out, talking to myself for a few days in the next step, and that’s really the fun part. It’s not ready to do that until it gets kind of in the ballpark.
But seeking that wonder thing, with the idea that its totally absurd. That it’s ridiculous.
The Places Below, 2015. Oil on canvas, 30 x 30 inches.
RH: I was wondering about that phrase which is also in your artist statement, you had that coupling [of wonder and absurd] there as well. Wonder makes a lot of sense, I am often in wonder of paintings. Absurd is maybe less clear. In the works that I’ve seen, there’s moments of play and fun, and self-referential funny; how do you see the absurd (or wonder)? Is it those moments of the funny/ play?
KQ: I think it’s those moments, I think it’s a reaction to me experiencing wonder in the world first and the funny moments in the painting are trying to communicate that reaction to feeling great grandeur and awe and to me it immediately seems ridiculous –but what does it mean? So, you feel this great sense of awe, are we just being programmed to think that way? It doesn’t lead anywhere, it’s beautiful but what is our sense of beauty? It just immediately seems ridiculous. Or looking at something gorgeous and immediately look down and there’s French Fries and ketchup packets. And that completes the moment for me that’s when, I feel like that feeling is done. Not when I see something beautiful but when I see something beautiful and then like that, that’s when its finished.
The complete thought. That feels like a human moment. I’m seeking that same thing in the painting somehow. I know there’s a million different ways to get at that, and I really keep going at one over and over again but I’m going to keep at that until I find another avenue.
These gathered items begin to work on a person through constant visual contact. They mix in your mind and things take root. So really the largest question there is, what happens in the gathering? That step must be crucial, it’s like finding active ingredients. It’s the part of the process with the most mystery and relies the most on intuition- and is complex because it takes into account all moments leading up to it but is also based on a single decision to include or exclude it.
RH: How have you seen your work shift maybe after graduate school? Or after the VMFA fellowship; are there other benchmarks that maybe altered your practice- either in the visuals or process?
KQ: Right out of grad school I felt like the paintings I was doing had to prove that playful side a lot more than I have to now. It’s a lot more forward – to prove this is what it’s about- I feel like it’s getting a little more nuanced; right after I felt like I gave myself more room to do what I was inclined to do, which was more landscape and wonder.
Playfight, 2008. Oil on canvas, 23 x 22 inches.
[The] pieces I made right after the fellowship (the pieces displayed in Amuse) reflect what happened right after that exploration, after I got to test my own sense of what is beautiful on my own. I brought the play back in, but in a less feverish way, which I realized was always closer to my intention. When you take a step back, you always see the limitations to your previous thinking and you adapt. The playfulness in the work before always came in like a Monty Python animation, like the hand of God just poking someone. With a little space I was able to see a way to insert the playfulness in the genetics of a painting and not always just drop it in like a parachute.
Othership, 2015. Oil on canvas, 24 x 24.5 inches.
After the fellowship, I had some freedom to try to get back into [imagery]– I felt like I gave up on imagery [in school] too soon also. I felt like I wasn’t able to do all the things at once- learn the language of abstraction and also include imagery. I just kept encountering Susan Rothenberg’s Blue Head (1980-81) at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) https://www.vmfa.museum/piction/6027262-8147732/# and it sat on me like a continuous challenge, from 2008 on.
The idea that when she reached for imagery it was something so ubiquitous, so basic to us humans finally pushed me to try. For my last show at the Eric Schindler Gallery, I began incorporating the hand and a brain-like form into the abstractions. I had been wary because what appealed to me about that Blue Head was the clarity and the focus that her brand of minimalism allows and I knew that that wasn’t me. There would be no reduction. So, after the decision to include a brain or hand, I was on my own to figure out how that functioned. Which turned out to be a lot like a hidden cache. Like the human touchstone was embedded and obscured by this big, wild “other”. To me, this resonates. It allowed for a new layer of potential readings in the work, parallel to the overall problems with painting. If all we are as creators is a brain and a hand, then it speaks more directly to the contrast of people being both conscious and still meat, just as the painting is an object that potentially carries that consciousness. That series tries on a lot of hats, because I was immediately inundated with more questions as soon as I opened that box.
It’s not that every painting will suddenly have a brain or a hand- the takeaway for me is more of a focus on the painting having a distinct presence, like an artifact or an uncovered wilderness. The challenge is to get closer to that over-arching goal, and the subject has less to do with getting there than I ever thought it did.
Secret Recess, 2017. Oil on panel, 14 x 16 inches.
The best advice I ever got in grad school was “just keep painting”. You have to honestly believe that no matter if anyone is interested or not that you would still keep [making art]. I ended up there a long time ago.
Rachel Hutcheson is an art historian with a focus on photography and new media art. She is currently a PhD student at Columbia University.