Artist of the Week: Todd Kelly

Todd Kelly lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. Kelly studied architecture before taking up painting. He earned an MFA at the School of Visual Arts and a B.A. at Anderson University, IN. Kelly lived in London from 2003 to 2006, where he worked at the National Portrait Gallery, and where his work was featured in numerous exhibitions. He has since been included in exhibitions in Ireland, New York, and New Mexico. His work was featured in an Artforum Critic’s Pick, the London Times, the London Paper, and Beard and Brush, among others.

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Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do. I grew up in Niles, MI moved to NYC in 1998 to attend the School of Visual Arts and have been painting pretty much every single day since graduating in 2000. I began showing my work with Asya Geisberg Gallery in 2011.

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How did your interest in art begin?All through junior-high I told everyone I was going to be an architect. I used to go to the Niles Public Library and sit for hours with architecture books and magazines. During one of those sessions at the library I discovered a fat, green book with an interesting flower pattern that said ‘Warhol’ on the spine. Near it was another huge book that said ‘Rauschenberg’ in a hand-written script on the spine. I took both books out and their very existence blew my mind. I never realized there were people out there doing what these guys were doing. I never knew that making things was a ‘thing’ one could do. I have a very specific memory of feeling jittery for several days after that serendipitous discovery, like feeling very ‘awake’. Art had always been a class one takes in school, a nice activity to occupy one’s time that I had enjoyed and been encouraged toward. But this was the moment I realized that there were people doing it for REAL. It was a moment of epiphany after which everything else I had ever desired began to pale in comparison to the possibility of making things for the rest of my life!

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How has your work developed within the past year? I have made an effort to keep my practice wide open as far as materials and methods of paint application are concerned. Until a few years ago, I avoided any sort of representation then tentatively began adding my name to the work as subject matter. The representation of myself as a common thread among disparate paintings led me to begin thinking about representing disparate objects in one setting/painting (a.k.a. still life painting). Recently I saw a diagram meant to explain the theory of gravity in which the planets are arranged on a cloth-like grid representing the ‘stuff’ space is made of. A planet resting on the ‘cloth’ creates a depression and causes other planets to move toward it on the incline. I really enjoyed the visual similarity of that diagram compared to the still life paintings I have been looking at composed of various objects arranged on a cloth and each having some sort of visual/narrative effect on each other. This is the central curiosity driving my current development.

What materials do you use in your work and what is your process like? I use oil paint, acrylic and spray paint, bits of paper, plastic and foil…I’ll use whatever is at hand but I usually work mostly with paint. My work develops in layers and happens rather slowly. I might spend a whole day futzing with one painting, sketching out possibilities and testing paint colors on paper before working on the actual piece. Then it gets set aside and I’ll leave it for a couple of days, maybe weeks even, while I have a good long think about it and work on other things.

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What artists are you interested in right now? There are a lot of painters who are making great work that interests me: Ted Gahl, Nicole Van Beek, Ezra Tessler, Joanne Greenbaum, Dana Schutz, Patrick Brennan and Kaspar Kagi come to mind right now and there are many others. I also enjoy discovering work that really throws me off center, like the art of Lewk Wilmhurst. If you described his work to me I would tell you I hate that sort of thing but I discovered his Tumblr page by accident one day and couldn’t stop going through it. Not a drop of paint to be found anywhere in his work but I really connected with what he is doing and his Tumblr presentation.

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What was the last exhibition you saw that stuck out to you? The Isa Genzken Retropsective at MOMA this past Fall/Winter. The spirit of her approach to making art and the general bewilderment foisted upon me while looking at each individual piece is what I strive for in my own work.

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If you had to explain your work to a stranger, what would you say? I tend to think in a circular fashion in which I consider all tangents while slowly zeroing in on a concept. That is how I work in the studio and that is usually how I go about trying to explain to someone what I am working on. I usually get about half way through an explanation before said stranger announces that my work sounds fascinating but they just spotted so-and-so across the room and absolutely must speak to them. There really is no such thing as an elevator pitch for good artwork.

What is your ideal studio situation/workspace? I’m in the process of moving out of a small but nearly perfect studio on the corner of Morgan and Metropolitan in Brooklyn. It’s a private space with incredibly high ceilings and no windows. I can go in and work non-stop for 10 or 12 hours and love every minute of it. The lack of windows/ventilation and monthly cost of the space, however, is a real problem so I’m moving on to a completely opposite work situation.  I will be painting upstate New York in a large barn studio that has plenty of natural light and fresh air blowing through wide open barn doors and an amazing view of the Shawangunk  Mountains in the distance. It’s hard for me to imagine anything more ideal than that right now. At least until winter sets in…

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What is one of the bigger challenges you and/or other artists are struggling with these days and how do you see it developing? In simplest terms, there exists a money problem: too much money goes to some artists and while most of the rest of us can barely afford to carve out time and space in which to work. Artists at both ends of that spectrum are prone to issues of integrity. It is easy to understand how a young artist suddenly earning $100,000+ for a painting will no longer be focused on continued development. While at the other end of the spectrum an artist living in an expensive urban center, with a low-paying day job attempting to cover rent, studio costs and school loans might be tempted to make work similar to the $100,000 paintings being trumpeted in the press rather than work toward his/her own voice.

Much has been written about the issue: I’ve read essays by critics vilifying wealthy collectors, essays by art dealers suggesting that it is up to the artists to change the situation, essays by collectors proclaiming that dealers need to make difficult changes to solve the money problem and I’ve seen work by artists who have dedicated their career to illustrating every detail of the whole mess. My friend Malin Abrahamsson, who always calls it like she sees it, says, “Everyone is in the pool but no one thinks they are getting wet.”

The issue of being influenced by huge amounts of money is not yet a problem for me. The issue of needing some of that money to pay for everyday life and the possibility of that need having an effect on my sincerity as an artist is, however, a very real struggle. My recent decision to leave NYC to work intensively in a rural setting will, I hope, go a long way toward cutting costs and aiding introspection.

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Tell us a joke. As a kid my favorite joke was to ask adults if they knew why elephants painted their toenails red. The answer is that it allows elephants to hide in a cherry tree. Of course I would get an eye-roll but then I would follow up with, “Well, have you ever seen an elephant in a cherry tree?” Which, of course they hadn’t and I would announce triumphantly, “See?!?! It works!!!”