All studio photos © Violet Shuraka.
Cheap & Plastique’s Violet Shuraka had a studio visit and photo shoot with NYC-based artist Kelsey Shwetz last month. Kelsey gave C & P a quick tour of her space, posed for some photos, and answered some questions about her work via an email interview after the studio visit. See more of Kelsey’s work here.
C & P: You live and work in NYC. How long have you been in the city and what brought you to New York?
Kelsey: I’ve lived here for precisely two years now. For me, moving from Montreal to New York represented unexplored avenues and possibility for expansion, artistically and personally. New York was in my mind this big dendritic mass of newness and opportunity that I would have to navigate, and that was thrilling.
C & P: Currently your studio is in Chelsea but you said that you are most likely moving it to Bushwick, Brooklyn in the very near future. Do you believe that more and more NY galleries will move out of Chelsea and the NY art world will be centered in and around Bushwick?
Kelsey: Yes, I will either move my studio to Bushwick or Greenpoint. A few galleries are making the move from Chelsea to Bushwick, but I don’t believe a giant exodus will happen any time soon. It is this curious thing where art is being made in Bushwick (or Gowanus or Greenpoint or Ridgewood) while many prominent galleries and most of the art fairs are located in the city. There are some fantastic galleries in Bushwick, and I think certainly Bushwick can be considered the center of where art is being made in New York.
C & P: You are also very involved in the Bushwick Art Crit Group, currently serving as Director of Exhibitions. Could you tell us a bit about the organization? Are all of the BACG presenting artists Brooklyn residents? How do you select the artists for each monthly crit?
Kelsey: Sure! Bushwick Art Crit Group is a non-profit organization committed to supporting and fostering development of Bushwick-based artists. We’ve been around since March 2013 and have recently expanded our monthly Crit programme to include exhibitions, participation in art fairs (Echo, SELECT fair at Art Basel) and panel discussions, which is very exciting! Not every presenting artist is a Brooklyn resident, but the vast majority are. In terms of selecting artists, it has all been about existing connections and relationships, which I think is really beautiful. What I mean by that is, it’s artists we already know and love, or it is an artist who came to a crit and approached us later wanting to present, or it is an artist you meet at a bar and think their work is really great and want them to speak about it, that kind of thing.
C & P: Next month at BACG you will be on a panel with the Guerilla Girls talking about the current state of the art world in relation to female artists. Could you tell us a bit more about this event?
Kelsey: I am so thrilled to be co-organizing and moderating this Feminist panel! We are honored to count Frieda Kahlo of the Guerrilla Girls as one of our panelists. What we’ll be addressing is the strategies that we, as self-identifying feminists/pro-feminists and artists, employ to identify, subvert, and oppose structural patriarchy in the Arts with particular examples of how we do so in our current practices. The panelists will also identify obstacles they deem most crucial to solve/ find most relevant. In having this panel, what we’re aware of is the importance of presenting an inclusive, representative voice in all Feminist dialogues. So we recognize the duty we have to use our platform at BACG to make space for those who would not necessarily have the privilege of such an opportunity. Thus, we’re viewing audience participation and discussion as a key part of our programme’s structure. I truly believe a lively discourse with all perspectives represented is not only fair and right and important, but key to progress and solidarity.
C & P: The current body of work in your studio consists of figurative oil paintings. How long have you been painting the figure? What interests you in painting a subject that has been painted throughout history, reaching as far back to the first cave paintings, in such a traditional medium as oil paint?
Kelsey: To be fair, I’ve been painting the figure since I was a child as we all have—those terrible watercolor paint sets where the yellow always ends up this greenish brown—but I have been addressing the figure formally and seriously in my practice for seven years. The fact that the figure in art is nothing new- but rather completely integrated into representation and expression since (as you’ve pointed out) the dawn of time is precisely what interests me. I’m very much attracted to classical realist portraiture, and this is referenced in my work. I paint the figure because I like looking at the figure, I like dealing with flesh, and expression, and the lines of the body. I’m also very aware that the medium of painting figures itself has historically been used as a kind of moral compass and aesthetic tastemaking device. So the kinds of bodies and concepts these figures illustrate (be it religious devotion, bravery in combat, virginal modesty) that we see depicted throughout history are both proposing and reinforcing what is ideal and correct socially. I like to borrow from the power of Art, and particularly oil paint on canvas and figurative work, and present concepts that aren’t completely represented or integrated or celebrated in our modern climate. Things like menstruation, the female gaze, non-intrusive or performative male sexuality, and empowered female sexual expression.
C & P: The term “feminism” is thrown around a lot these days with ignorant starlets declaring its obsolescence and Beyonce posing in front of the giant letters. Do you see your work as contributing to this conversation?
Kelsey: I sincerely hope so. We—as Feminists and allies—are all contributing to this conversation in radical and different and meaningful ways. What I endeavor to do with my painting practice is to visually represent kinds of things I feel are important to have a dialogue about—or to integrate into our collective consciousness—in a lush and beautiful and classical way. More than anything I’m interested in having these conversations with people who wouldn’t normally seek a Feminist dialogue out. If a person who doesn’t identify as Feminist walks into an art gallery and sees one of my pieces on the wall and goes away with a different perception, like “menstruation is normal and beautiful and ok to see and talk about!” then that’s a step in the right direction.
C & P: Looking around your studio I saw the works Madonna with Child (from 2014), Satisfaction (2014), Morning (Devotion) (from 2013), Self Portrait II (2013), Model with Bird (Albert St. Studio) (2013), and Lara with Book (2013). In all of these works there is a solitary figure, sometimes the subject is looking up from what they are doing, directly confronting the viewer of the canvas, and at other times the figures are lost in their own moment and the viewer is able to sneak a peek into their world, they seem unaware of a human presence. Is the subject of the painting engaged in a larger narrative or would you like the painting to be seen as a snapshot of a moment?
Kelsey: It is both, for me, depending on the painting. For example, Satisfaction is steeped in a larger narrative, as is Morning (Devotion) and Self Portrait II. In these works I am trying to illustrate a larger thesis or idea and the figures are helping with that. Other works like Lara with Book, Madonna with Child, and Model with Bird are more about capturing a specific person, their tendencies, their expression, in a particular moment. A true portrait in that sense.
C & P: In your paintings the subjects are often experiencing pleasure or presenting themselves in an overtly sexual pose. All of the figures seem strong willed and not embarrassed by their sexuality. Frequently, throughout history, we see male artists painting and photographing the female nude. We see less women artists painting or photographing the male nude yet you have taken on the subject. The men you have chosen to paint frequently have erections or are involved in a sexual act (such as pleasing a woman). Why have you chosen to paint the male nude in an explicit way? Where do you see the viewer’s place in relation to these figures?
Kelsey: I often see the male nude represented in popular culture and fine art as either devoid of sexuality (as in Roman and Greek sculpture) or firmly rooted in machismo (as in, everywhere). This simply is not a representative or inclusive view of male sexuality. When I do present a male nude he is illustrating the whole other end of the glorious spectrum that comprises human sexuality and expression. My male nudes are tender, demure, worshipful, shy, private, even passive. In the same way, I endeavor to fill in the gaps of the representation of feminine sexuality; my female nudes are overt, assertive, direct, unapologetic, or completely unconcerned with the viewer. In some works (Worship, The Triumph (curiosity), First Period, Treats) the viewer’s POV is intentionally constructed to reinforce the female gaze. That is, the viewer accesses the work as if they were one taking the photo of the moment happening to them. And in these cases the thing happening to them is intrinsically connected to having a female body (like menstruating or having your pussy eaten). There can be no debate that these are works illustrate the female gaze.
C & P: What inspires you to make a self portrait? How often do you paint self portraits?
Are the people you paint your friends, your lovers, or hired models? A combination of all three? Do you prefer painting one type of subject over another?
Kelsey: Self Portrait II was painted in an artist’s residency program I attended in New Mexico, in a tiny remote town. So, during this period there was a lot of reflection and self-evaluation, and facing myself and my work. A self portrait seemed appropriate. Plus, no one in the town would model without clothing for me! Everyone I paint is someone with whom I have a relationship with; I’ve never hired a model or painted a stranger. For me this is important because when you are intimate with someone you understand expressions they make or catch mannerisms that you can translate to the work that a stranger might miss. I think the painting becomes more full and complex when you understand your model.
C & P: Do you generally prefer to paint from a live model? Do you also utilize figures from photographs as your subjects? Do you feel that a painting created by observing a live model differs greatly from one painted using photographic or collaged sources?
Kelsey: There is nothing I like more than to paint from life, but more often than not I am painting from a photographic source simply because it allows me more freedom in my work. I don’t have to coordinate schedules or take breaks or struggle to create the same expression or pose as the last sitting (as you have to do while working with a live model). I do however shoot all of my models if I am using a photographic source; it’s important to me to be married to all aspects of the process. I do feel there is a great difference between a painting done from a live model and one done from a static source. In the case of the former, the subject is always shifting, always breathing and moving slightly and sometimes in the space of an hour they’ve shifted their pose so cumulatively and drastically you have to recalibrate. Thus, you are capturing a sum total of them—of all of their little movements and microexpressions. In the end it may be a less technically representative portrait, but it might be a more sincere likeness.
C & P: Could you describe your process when beginning a new piece? Do you ever create a preliminary drawing first or do you begin working directly on the canvas?
Kelsey: I do create a preliminary drawing, but it is done directly on the canvas. So, in the majority of my paintings the process is: a grid, then a drawing of the figure and some of the background details, then a ground layer of a rusty, coppery brown where the figure will be, some preliminary background color blocking, then the white highlights of the figure, then the shadows, then the pinks, then a layer of a whitish Naples Yellowish paint for the flesh, then a final layer of white highlights. And in between these layers of the figure I’m developing the background. I had a tendency before to paint the figure entirely first, then add the background in later. I’ve stop doing this and have strived to create a more balanced composition throughout a painting’s development. I like the idea of covering the white canvas as soon as possible so that at any time throughout the process the painting could ostensibly look finished.
C & P: In your most recent work you seem to be paying more attention to the small details and patterns in the backgrounds of the paintings, like with Madonna with Child. In the older work the backgrounds tend to consist of blocks of solid colors or very loosely painted patterns. How do you think these changes affect the way your work is read?
Kelsey: Hmm, good question. I hope that these more developed backgrounds will help my paintings to look more integrated. That in some cases elements of the background are just as crucial and important as the figure itself. Where in the case of previous works with more blocky colors, or even solid colors, the point of the painting was the figure. The background was just support.
Satisfaction, 58″x58″, Oil on Canvas Board, 2014, photo © K. Shwetz
C & P: You were also experimenting on your newest canvas by applying a cut out pattern directly to the canvas. Do you think you might experiment more with including mixed media into your paintings? How does the collaging of materials interplay with your subject matter?
Kelsey: Ha! The evening after you left my studio I ripped that cut-off pattern off of my painting, sanded the reddish paint that was behind it off, painted it white, and started painting a pattern from scratch for the background. Many, many mixed media artist will disagree with me vehemently here but for me applying a fabric or paper patterned element is quick visual gratification. That is, for my work applying a pre-patterned element doesn’t add anything significant conceptually that painting that same design from scratch would add. So maybe I should not be lazy and just paint it! So goes my line of reasoning. It’s like some exacting Victorian exercise in discipline and devotion. Plus I do intrinsically love making colors, translating delicious silk and creamy whites and lace through oil paint.
C & P: What projects are you working on now?
Kelsey: The piece I’m working on now is very exciting for me because it is a bit of a visual departure from my general body of work. I have this dear copy of 1000 Nudes (published by Taschen) which is this incredible compilation of erotic and pornographic photos from the mid-nineteenth century to the early 20th century. They are all gorgeous photographs—beautiful graceful lines, sumptuous flesh—but they’re all in black and white. I find the visual aesthetic of black and white figurative photos very arresting. I think because in this case they are less explicit—the flush of a cheek or the reddish stain of a lip or the pinkish tones of a breast all must be imagined—projected—by the viewer. So anyways, the figures in the piece I’m working on now will be in black and white. The only color will be in the background. I’m thinking of subverting the balance between background and figure. And I’ve found this great photo of vintage wallpaper (also in black and white) that I’m translating to color.
I’m also in the process of curating a booth for SELECT Fair in Miami on behalf of BACG. Christopher Stout (the founder of BACG) and I have selected some really fantastic artists: Alison Brady, Beata Chrzanowska, Eric Gottshall, Lisa Levy, Phoenix Lindsey-Hall, Meryl Meisler, Andrew Cornell Robinson, Thomas Stevenson, Drew Van Diest, and Andrea Wolf. I am truly honored to be working (and showing) with them.