John Kelly, using traditional techniques for modern sensibility
I was born in Paris, where I live now, and grew up in New York. I’ve been drawing and painting since childhood. I went to School of Visual Arts in the 1980s, and participated in the East Village Art Scene at the time, showing at 301 Houston Street Gallery, and Ground Zero Gallery. My work then was influenced mainly by the Abstract Expressionists and the German Expressionists, but that changed when I saw the large Balthus retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1983, and my work became primarily figurative, and has remained so every since. My influence since then has gravitated toward 19th century French painting, especially Degas, as well as contemporary figurative painters like William Bailey and Jeremy Lipking, and traditional Japanese prints. I studied with Jeremy Lipking from 2012 to 2014, and he has been an enormous influence.
My feeling these days is that although I love abstract and conceptual art, using the figure in an academic manner is more interesting to me. Seeing a figure painted in a way that people can recognize easily creates an intimacy and a challenge that is visceral. Complaints that realistic art is merely kitsch doesn’t bother me, and the writing by Odd Nerdrum on the subject is very persuasive. I come to this conclusion as an artist who has fully embraced abstract and conceptual art, although I do find the historical expressions of it more persuasive then most contemporary aspects of it.
Generally, my objective is first and foremost to capture the psychological state of the model, and also to explore the relationship of the viewer to the model. This varies between having the model unaware of the gaze, to having the model appropriate the gaze and challenge the viewer as to his or her relationship to the model. In my Mirror series, My models ask questions of the viewer, Why are your looking at me? Have you directed this same gaze to yourself? In my Windows series, I reference the mythological interpretations of the Danae myth, the model is unaware of the viewer, the primary gaze is of the cool light pouring through the curtains in my studio.
My technique utilizes many of the skills of the past, like glazing, but I paint just as much alla prima, trying to maintain an immediacy and intimacy that that can create during a sitting. I work with several models here in L.A., and they’ve become active collaborators with my work. Allowing them to be creative helps me.