Kevin T. Kelly’s studio is deep in the Essex Studios building in Walnut Hills; he met me at the Essex Street door to lead me through multiple corridors to his space where the north wall is all window and the clutter all has meaning. Any studio is cluttered if real work goes on there, and the north light is a benign presence.

“Neuse River”

Kelly is 55 years old, his head is shaved and his glasses are thin-rimmed, he is erect and energetic and leads a life dominated by the making of art. Supporting that habit, the making of art, can mean sorties out to other fields. For Kelly it was, long ago, a stint in Closson’s gallery downtown; later it was ten years of teaching at his alma mater, the Art Academy of Cincinnati, plus other gigs including the parking of cars. He has lived and worked in New York City as well as Cincinnati; the art has been the reason for it all.

Kelly’s body of work is startling. It consists of what at first glance seem to be two diametrically opposed groups of paintings. One is full of action and people seen close in the Neo-Pop style related to comic books; the other depicts unpopulated landscapes stretching to dim horizons.  What happened here? The artist himself is quick to say there is more in common between these works than is readily seen, but he is aware of his own thinking and modification of ideas and techniques to new ends. The Neo-Pop look of the earlier work has formal qualities that slide into the landscapes; he continues to use a hot palette, for example, but introduces curves into his formerly horizontal or vertical compositions. It was, in any case, neither a quick nor easy move, and as much a philosophical as an aesthetic change.

Whiskey Delta

He had developed his earlier style while in New York, working for another transplanted Cincinnati artist, Tom Wesselmann. While in art school, Kelly had nourished the ambition of becoming an “art star;” and the place to do that obviously was New York. His wife was ready to go; in fact,  she had a job waiting. So in 1988, on the day after Halloween, the two set off for the city and he “free-lanced that winter.” With the hope of becoming a studio assistant, he wrote Wesselmann (who had been one of his heroes when in school). Got an immediate response. Wesselmann would hire him for one day a week. No, he didn’t want to see Kelly’s folio – “I’ll find out if you’re any good.” It was soon two days a week, then four. Kelly says “I was there six years. It was the most incredible experience. Super nice. Even keel. I learned so much, like being in grad school.”

“Beaufort River Sunset”

As an aside, brought on apparently by the mention of graduate school, Kelly throws out a thought on the generally coveted state of tenure track. To him it is “a noose that strangles creativity.”  This may explain his own preference for grad-school-like experience, in the busy studio of a successful artist, rather than learning from someone whose creativity he finds hampered and whose ideas may stifle his.

“New York in those days was like a carnival of galleries and artists. Galleries each had a sensibility. It was real back then. Every morning, anything could happen. So exciting! It’s changed so much now. But I’m glad I had the experience of going at 28, not now in my 50’s.”

War Bonds 02

Kelly had been a sculpture major at the Academy, a fact he explains to his satisfaction as the result of being “process-oriented. I saw sculpture as against the wall. . .” implying two dimensions, so that what he began producing was indeed two-dimensional. Working for Tom Wesselmann “was really daunting. I was still maturing, still finding my voice. I wrote a lot of poetry, but also began doing Pop paintings, with solid graphic imagery. I thought – at least I’ll have paintings I like.” Underlying themes in much of the Pop work, then and later, suggest dysfunction and lack of communication, particularly between the sexes. Blocks of flat, highly saturated color help to drive these points home.

Even then, galleries could afford to be arrogant and high handed. He tried more than one, stopping one morning on his way to Wesselmann’s at the Bruce R. Lewin Gallery on Prince Street in Soho, his slides in his coat. Finally, someone looked at them. (Galleries often simply waved aspiring artists on). This was in May. In September, Kelly was in a group show there.  Works were priced from $2000 to $12,000!  Highest prices his work had ever been associated with.  He is quick to point out that galleries, which traditionally take half the price paid, need to do that in order to meet expenses and stay in business. “I’ve been with Bruce R. Lewin for 22 years, since 1993, first with his gallery and, after he closed it in 2001, with him as a private dealer. He’s been a great friend and dealer all these years.”

“Sunset, Beaufort River”

Another long term relationship has been with the Breitling Swiss Watch Company. They have commissioned works from Kelly since 1999, works that eventually required his becoming proficient in digital drawing.  “It was an enormous learning curve because it’s not a language I grew up with. I was already beginning with collages, made compositions using collages and drew from that. So I learned Photoshop to speed up the process. Then learned Adobe Illustrator, which interfaces seamlessly with Photoshop. It’s not like drawing in pencil, but it does draw everything in line and blow ups don’t lose detail because it’s all vector-based. It can go to billboard size, but is completely counter-intuitive for me because I didn’t grow up with it. Learned it and now am pretty quick in getting to where I want to be.  It’s like driving, when you’re on top of it, you think [about the car, about Illustrator] – what’ll this thing DO!  That’s where I am now.”

But the path to today has not been wholly smooth. “I had a melt-down at age 50. Dysfunction in general. My outlook was dark on issues, on people, everything imploded, galleries were not interested. I went to parking cars at $6 an hour.” This was not an ideal situation. “Valet parking, let me tell you, is a young man’s job.” He told himself “Put your head down, need to find the silver lining here.” He also “started reading a lot, much of it spiritual matter, including tai chi. I ate better, re-evaluated my world view, let go of a lot of things.  Including wanting to be an ‘art star.’ If it happens it’s o.k., but also o.k. if not.”

He was still painting, he says, meanwhile dealing with “various ego-related matters.” One day, a voice in his ear said “You want to paint landscapes.”

He: “No, I don’t. It’s not what people expect from me.”

Two days later, the voice returns: “You want to paint landscapes.”

He doesn’t answer this time, but thinks “Why am I putting up a brick wall?” And then, he says, “The ego thing collapsed.”

Alpha Mike Foxtrot

He began doing small landscapes on bristol board. “Relearning everything I do. By the fourth or fifth try I’d surrendered to it, imposed my will on Pop art. I knew where I was, quit fighting and let it tell me what it needs.  It’s like a dance. I’d been visually screaming at people for twenty-five years. Now – how subtle can I make things? Atmosphere, gradations of tone, an oriental sense of perspective, Zen-like horizon line, atmospheric perspective.  The dynamic tensions of Pop can’t be cropped; they are like carnival barkers, landscapes are like Zen meditation, but I try to instill energetic flow.” He is still doing some Pop, though, and is interested in the ebb and flow of ideas.  “I may get into a hybrid of the two,” he adds. Where might that lead?  We’ll have to wait to see.

But right now, one of his works is in the Contemporary Arts Center’s group show, “After the Moment: Reflections on Robert Mapplethorpe,” on view through March 13, 2016, and several landscapes will be included in “Panorama XXX,” a group show at Cincinnati Art Galleries, opening December 4.

“A fine artist,” says this fine artist, “unless you’re out all the time, you’re almost cocooned. I don’t do openings any more, also don’t do the bar scene.” He lives in Covington and has recently been contacted by Cate and Jay Becker of BLDG, the Covington-based branding and art company, to carry out an outdoor, wall-sized mural. “It’s an exciting prospect,” he says, and adds that he knew Jay’s dad. Continuity has its pleasures, and for Kelly the cocoon is not confining.

Meanwhile, although his marriage did not last, its product, their son Jack, is in his final year at Columbus College of Art and Design. He plans to be an artist.

–Jane Durrell

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