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When I asked Jake Kelley to walk me through how he creates his wildly energetic abstract paintings, he first notes that he has to wear a gas mask while he paints because he uses a lot of toxic epoxy resin.
Why epoxy, I ask? “Because it’s ... shiny,” he says. That incongruous pairing of toxic fumes and shiny things somehow sets the tone for our talk.
Kelley was highlighted in 2008 as one of four emerging artists at AVA’s 4 Bridges Arts Festival and he’s this year’s featured artist.
Most of his pieces start when he cuts a piece of aluminum to size, with only a vague idea of where he will take it.
“I’ll chose a first layer of color and put that down and then maybe choose a second layer of marks, and then the layers build upon themselves like a one-man chess game,” he says.
Each succeeding layer is each a reaction to the preceding layer. “Sometimes they don’t work, sometimes they do, but it’s always exciting because I’m not necessarily in control of the outcome completely,” he adds. “There’s always a nice fight going on.”
The epoxy resin comes in near the end. “If I think it’s worthy of becoming really, really shiny I’ll pour some epoxy resin on it. Then I go in and draw on top of the epoxy resin. The drawing ends up being raised because the epoxy resin is a half-inch think, crystal clear glaze. It gives it kind of a strange 3-D look.”
As an emerging artist five years ago, his work was all large-scale black and white drawings created with dry media like powdered graphite and charcoal. Now, Kelley’s canvases are full of vibrant color. For his featured artist designation this year, AVA provided a booth space free of charge and produced a fine art print of one of his canvases, called “Glitter and Drunk.” The featured piece juxtaposes an intricate topography of blue and white with looser reds and yellows and a pair of geometric arcs.
Being Found By Inspiration
Kelley credits AVA with helping him keep going as an artist. “I have two kids and a full-time job. AVA has always given me a little carrot to go for.”
He disowns the idea that artists are always inspired. “It’s more like you put in the hours and hopefully there will be moments of inspiration that will find you when you’re down in your studio,” he says. “A lot of times I just go down there to put myself in that space. A lot of times I’ll end up sweeping the floor.”
He sometimes tries to help inspiration find him by writing to-do lists for his studio work.
“They’re a little bit weird,” he says. “I can remember one said something like ‘paint trash white’ and ‘upside down deer.’”
A truckload of trash did in fact get painted and displayed at CreateHere as an installation called, yes, “White Trash.” The upside down deer never quite happened, he says, “But I am working on and will have at 4 Bridges some things that are vaguely deer-related. One of them might be upside down. I haven’t decided.”
He starts listing the shapes of aluminum canvases he will have a 4 Bridges: squares, rectangles, circles, animals, severed heads. Wait, what?
Painting on Medusa
“Lately, I’ve been cutting out shaped canvases and doing more simple compositions, because the complexity is in the shape of the canvas and not necessarily in the actual composition of the painting,” he explains.
One is a severed head of Medusa based on a Caravaggio painting that he’s really excited about. “I can’t imagine who would want that hanging in their living room, but well see,” he deadpans.
This interplay between abstract color and figuratively shaped canvas began about a month ago and he will have three of these pieces at 4 Bridges, out of about 30 pieces in his booth.
“I’ve realized that imagery is something that I am interested in playing with,” he says. “It seems like a natural step for me to inject a new layered meaning through imagery. The shaped canvas has allowed me to do that while still maintaining this complex, abstract color field that’s become a part of my process.”
One reason Kelley is looking forward to showing these new pieces is to get feedback on them. After staring at them all day in his studio, he has a hard time telling what’s good and bad anymore.
“I think these new painting are either really cool or just completely horrible,” he says. “I would ask my wife, but she’ll just ask me why I’m not upstairs folding laundry. So it’s good to get it out there and get feedback.”
Layered Glass Jewels
In addition to larger canvases, Kelley will also exhibit smaller pieces on layered glass. Most are about seven inches square and two inches thick, made from a half dozen panes painted on one or both sides and sandwiched with clear epoxy resin. He made these initially as color and composition studies using extra materials.
“I had lots of glass pieces. Every night when I would go down to my basement, I would use leftover paint and experiment with different marks on this glass.”
As the colored panes accumulated, he would experiment with different combinations. “Not only would it teach me things for my bigger pieces, but they also became little jewels in themselves,” he says. “You can see each layer, and when you stack them they begin to interact. The top layer of glass might have one single brush stroke. The bottom might have a whole opaque layer of color.”
A Tip of the Hat, A Flick of the Hand
So what powers Jake Kelley’s one-man chess game? “That’s a hard, hard question,” he says.
“Painting is a conversation, right? You can only hope that you can become an important part of that dialog,” he says. “My work is kind of a post-modern play on abstract expressionist ideas.”
Why post-modern? “Because it is work that’s aware of its roots and aware of the absurdity of some of the ideas that it’s dealing with, such as genuine expression or originality.”
His work, he says, is simultaneously a tip of the hat to abstract expressionism and ... he makes a gesture. The four fingers of one hand flick, palm down, from under the chin out into the air. It’s a classic insult, maybe more Italian than American, far less obscene and insulting than the familiar middle finger, but with some of the same literal meaning. It carries a dismissive sense, somewhere between “Get the f--- out of my face!” and “What, are you still here?”
And what does it mean to give a simultaneously tip and flip to the artistic movement that inspires him? “It means I’m trying to paint with sincerity while kind of being conscious of my own cynical understandings of culture,” he says.
I mention irony, but he doesn’t see any in his approach. Actually the timing of our conversation is ironic, he says, “Because I’m a teacher and this very day I’ve been interviewing my students on camera about their own work, and it’s a difficult thing to do, to talk about your work without being too sensitive or defensive.”
I reassure him that he has been neither sensitive nor defensive, and ask what he learns from his students. “They remind me every day that being an artist is not a walk in the park, it’s a grueling day in the factory.”