I am interested in creating work that holds multiple moods and experiences simultaneously, and the mechanics of mythology in a post-mythic age. My recent paintings follow a figure’s movement through a series of more or less legible scenarios. Each canvas articulates part of her origin story, mapping out zones of the landscape and recording her interaction with the surrounding space and the beings that populate it. The paintings are unified by darkly bright, or brightly dark, color palettes and a preponderance of flora, both traits which place this world in a heritage of women’s work—the former calling on a tradition of colorists which includes canonical names like Stettheimer and Chicago; the latter on countless botanical illustrators. I am interested in elaborating a style which is immersive and reflexive, which makes use of painting’s capacities for both illusion and revelation. In presenting this character sometimes discovering, often lounging -unheroic- in a theatrically non-natural nature, I hope to offer a context for considering how we might orient ourselves to an Edenic environment, and how we might bring our bad habits with us there.
Interview with Kelsey Shwetz
Questions by Emily Burns
Hi Kelsey! I read an interview where you talked about your background before studying art in NYC—can you tell us the details of your undergrad education in Psychology, your travels, and what ultimately led you to NYC an to becoming an artist?
I did an undergraduate degree in Psychology at the University of Manitoba, lived in Costa Rica for a bit, and then moved to Montreal to pursue an MA/Phd in Psychology at McGill. In Montreal everything became unmoored and I decided that I should just do the thing I had always wanted to do, and pursue art as a career. I applied to a few MFA programs in New York, and moved here in 2012.
Were there any sparks of artistic creativity when you were younger, or did this part of your life begin after graduation?
I was a creative kid who was interested in art—I think a lot of kids are- and some of my earliest and fondest memories are of coloring and painting at the kitchen table or on the carpet. But I never imagined it was possible to make a serious career of art, and where I grew up I wasn’t presented with any evidence to the contrary, despite having two encouraging teachers. So I did a degree in Psychology and took art classes as electives but I should have paid more attention; all of my extra-curricular activities were art related and my friends were from art class and that’s where I was happiest. Or actually, in art class was where I first felt like myself.
Can you give us some insight into how you begin a painting? What is your overall process like from the start to finish?
Most paintings will begin with an idea that I’ve culled from something I’m reading or a conversation I’ve had. A snip of a line or a pairing of words or a physical pun will act as a jumping off point. I’ll make a few sketches to get a sense of what the composition might be. Then I’ll color block out parts of the canvas with bright colors—often neons—so that I’m a bit disoriented when I’m laying down the first few colors; a Viridian on stark white is quite different than a Viridian on fluorescent pink. In this way I set up a problem to solve and relearn the behaviors of the pigments I’m most comfortable with. I imagine constructing a mental stage set: the big moving parts, lighting, what temperature it should be, time of day, what the air feels like, what’s just about to happen, then the figure wanders in, and where would I go first if it were me? I’ll paint her in and then think about how she’s reacting to the environment and what changes she’s affecting around her.
Is drawing a part of your practice—whether as preparatory sketches or finished works?
Drawing was only a preparatory part of my practice, and even then I would draw directly on the canvas, to sketch out a composition. But recently I’ve been making small drawings that I would consider finished works, with oil pastel, colored pencil, and marker. These are mostly done as either automatic drawings or at least are not relying on a reference, and that’s been really freeing. They’re environments where the figure is absent, which makes me think about how to relay a presence without explicit figuration. I’m keeping the ugly bad ones around too, because maybe they’re gifts or predictions from the future.
Your paintings often place the viewer in a position of a voyeur, like they are peering around the objects in the paintings to see beyond, into the depths, or interior space of the painting. The way you create a portal into a three-dimensional world is uncanny. Can you talk a bit about this effect in your work?
When I began this body of work I thought of each painting as a slice of an origin story, that read together would make something complete, although the parameters of that thing would always be expanding. But recently I’ve been thinking a lot about virtual reality, and specifically, virtual embodiment and out of body experiences. It is now possible to put on a headset and perceive yourself as if from afar, simulating an out of body experience. I imagine the viewer having a similar relationship with the space and figure in the paintings. The viewer is less of a voyeur, instead they’re watching a distanced self engaged in familiar actions. I am interested in the private moments and rituals where our focus is so deeply rooted in our body that we forget ourselves and how we may appear.
Your past work was highly figurative, and the colors were much more subdued, and almost desaturated. Your current use of color is totally different! Its saturated, vibrant, and often neon or fluorescent. Can you talk a bit about your use of color now and what brought about that shift?
I had moved a lot, to different countries and within New York, and in the process most of my possessions fell away and my apartments ended up minimally furnished and I came to love this aesthetic for living spaces. Very bare and sparse. In the studio, I use color formally as a distancing device, to conjure a sense of a space that differs from conventional or familiar perspective, a reality that is slightly skewed. Oftentimes color is the visual evidence of a celestial body charging a part of a landscape or figure with significance. I also use color synonymously with light to cultivate a brightly-dark, or darkly-bright time of day, mood, and temperature.
In the new paintings, a glowing, mystical figure appear occasionally—does this figure represent anyone in particular?
That figure came to represent a matriarch or guide in the world of my paintings. I had just read Djuna Barnes’ Ladies Almanac, and in this book there’s a character, Dame Musset, who is both a patron saint and pied piper to closeted lesbians, showing them the light, as it were. I was thinking of her when I made this figure.
Can you tell us a bit about your current studio? What are the most important components of your space? Is there anything you love about your current setup?
My studio is in Ridgewood, a few blocks from my apartment, I just moved here in July. I have a window so I can finally have plants in my space. I have a rug that moves about that I sit on when I paint on the floor, leaning a painting against a wall, which is preferred painting mode. I staple large canvases directly to the walls here, and stretch them later. I like the feeling of the paintings being static as they’re developing, and I have to orient my body around them as I work. They seem more like portals this way.
In your statement you write that the flora in your paintings are a trait which place the worlds that you create in a heritage of women’s work—can you elaborate on this? Can you tell us more about the plants in your current work?
Historically women’s scientific illustrative contributions to botany and art have been excluded or relegated to “craft” or “hobby”, so when I look at botanical artists like Marianne North and Ellis Rowan I see their work as a radical, not because of the content, but because their commitment to understanding and documenting the natural world dominated their lives. In her wonderful essay “From Feminized Flora to Floral Feminism: Gender Representation and Botany,” Kelly McLeod relates 17th-to-19th century gender politics to the history of botanical classification and representation, and shows how women have reclaimed the botanical metaphor as a symbol of strength and knowledge. My work pushes up against the lineage of depicting a female in paradise; I’m responding to artists like Paul Gauguin and Henri Rousseau. I’m considering how we might construct and orient ourselves to a modern Edenic environment, and how we might define bad habits. I’m interested in moments and gestures that are immediately recognizable and share a modern sensibility, such as crouching down to pee outside, cutting one’s hair, binge eating surrounded by a spread of Seamless.
In a post on the blog Art Spiel, Etty Yaniv wrote that your work “conjure(s) intense psychological urgency”—would you say this is true? If so, is this effect intentional?
I hope it is true, because I think of my paintings as on the cusp or breaking point of something; a moment just before something intense is going to happen.
In the same interview, you said that artist residencies are a bit like Eden-like place where regular responsibilities disappear, and you wrote that, “…for me at least, no matter how I try to recalibrate my schedule or shift into a more productive mode, my typical ways creep in by the end of the first week. It makes me think about what part of us is changeable and what part is nature.” What are the types of ‘typical ways’ that creep back in? Are these ‘ways’ somewhat universal? I think about this struggle a lot—how sometimes we seem to need challenges and distractions that we fight so hard to stave off, and we suffer in some ways when they are gone for too long!
I’m certainly not going to argue for austerity and privation, that’s for sure. I think the “ways” that I referenced are the schedule your body naturally falls into and your internal rhythm that’s an aggregate of all of your caprices, desires, needs, inclinations and preferences. So although the specifics of these won’t be universal it seems common to operate from the perspective that your natural state falls short, or isn’t as productive as it could be, and that you have to go against the grain of your body and restructure fundamental parts of yourself to be maximally productive, which seems not the right way to think about it.
Is there anything that is currently affecting your mood or your work in a dramatic way? What’s happening in the studio right now?
The more I reflect on it, I’m creating paintings for rituals and routines to play out and space to exist without being penetrated. I’m making a world where women can exist and be undisturbed.
You recently had a solo show at Brethren Gallery in Queens, which included both large and small paintings, and a large floor painting. Can you tell us more about the theme for the show, and about the floor piece in particular?
The show was called Recreation Room and was about the coming together of interior and exterior, or rather, I was thinking about ways to make outdoor spaces seem private and private spaces seem foreign or remembered. For example, in one of the paintings, a figure is lounging against a tree surrounded by a lavish spread of food. This felt like a bedroom space to me, as if she were in bed. The floor of the gallery was completely covered by a painting with a large pink shape in the center with turquoise rings orbiting outward. This was an entry portal. I was really interested in making a completely overwhelming or immersive space, and was thinking about map screens and overworlds in Nintendo games. I hoped that the floor painting would function as a connective tissue that both unified the spaces in the paintings and provided a way for the viewer and the figure to travel between them.
Over time you have been involved in a number of arts groups, and most recently you co-founded the Lady Painters (club?) Can you talk a bit about what that is and what you all do as a group?
In 2015 a friend and fellow painter, Jenn Dierdorf, and I began brainstorming ways to feel more connected to women painters, aside from Instagram exchanges and brief encounters in gallery, academic, or other institutional spaces. We began hosting monthly dinners for a handful of painters -both those we knew and those whose work we admired from afar. Since then we've structured the gatherings a bit more: added a slideshow where each artist shares a bit about their work, invited one or two women curators/gallerists to each meeting, switched up the location and hosts and guests each time. We've had summer BBQs, workshops, and holiday painting exchanges as well each year, which has been super fun. But basically, this is a chance to have dinner with and get to know other painters.
Can you walk us through what might be a typical day for you?
I get up around 8am, have coffee and read and then am out of the house by 10am, either to teach or to go to the studio. On the days I have a whole day in the studio I used to come home for lunch, but I’ve banned myself from doing that because I would just end up napping with my cat Tyrone for the rest of the afternoon. So I’ll have lunch in my studio and just stare at my work the whole time, which ends up being helpful. I try to organize everything so I get an early start in the studio and do the bulk of my work in the afternoon because I prefer working in natural light and my studio is on the ground floor so around 6pm the same people are walking home from the train past my window and it’s like, ok! Better have something to show them what I did today! They can’t just see me eating crackers on the floor.
Who are some of the artists you look at most often?
I am constantly looking at Shara Hughes; I’m besotted with her work. I’ve been looking at some of Paul Lehr’s sci-fi illustrations from the 50s and 60s. And I’m always looking at the work that’s being made by my friends and peers, either in person at their shows or on Instagram.
Is there anyone or anything that has had the most significant work impact on your work up to this point, whether it be an artist influence, a teacher, a place, or something else?
Broadly and structurally, moving to New York has had the greatest impact on my practice as an artist. It changed my relationship with art in a fundamental way because in the place I grew up, my relationship to painting felt by proxy. I would look at the great, influential paintings in art books but unless I travelled, rarely would have the opportunity to see them in person. On the day-to-day and specific level, my husband, who is the most curious and insightful person I know. When I’m stuck he asks the right questions and we end up having really productive conversations.
What is the best exhibition your have seen recently?
I keep thinking about the Gertrude Abercrombie show at Karma. There were a few chilling moonscapes where you could practically taste the air and the light was so spot on. Also some of them were so funny, the one with the queen and the owl in the tree...!
Are there any apps, tools, resources, etc. that you find helpful as an artist or person?
The @bodegacatsofinstagram account single handedly banishes all bad studio vibes.
Is there any advice you have received that you remember often?
There’s this quote, I think by one of the early abstract guys, that if even if you don’t feel creative or like making work you go to your studio and you sharpen pencils. It’s this idea that creativity is not as precious and fleeting as we think it is, or maybe it is and while we can’t always control it or call upon it when we want it, we can give it conditions to germinate. So, for me, this is about showing up, and being around your work, and thinking about it, even when you’re frustrated by it.
What are you reading? What are you listening to? What are you watching?
I just finished reading Paradise Rot by Jenny Hval, and am currently reading Proust’s second volume of In Search of Lost Time, Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein, and a collection of poems by Maggie Nelson called Shiner. In the studio I always listen to the exact same things, in the exact same order, for about a month or so, until it changes. So a Pavlovin pairing happens between a sequence of music and a particular painting, where one will remind me of the other. Right now it shakes out as Saint-Saens’ cello concerto No.1 and sonatas Nos. 2 & 3, Handel’s Harpsichord Suite No. 5 in E major and Suite No.1 in B-flat major, Beethoven’s sonatas Nos. 1-5 for piano and cello, Cat Power’s album Wanderer, Fleet Foxes’ album Helplessness Blues, and then usually by now I’ll be fed up with my paintings and Girlpool and Chastity Belt will come on.
What are some of your interests outside of art?
Cooking has emerged as a decided interest in the past two years- I think as a response to the political chaos and current climate; reading a recipe all the way though, following directions and knowing that if you complete one step after the other something will turn out in the end is supremely comforting.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us!
To find out more about Kelsey and her work, check out her website.