Kelsey in her Williamsburg, Brooklyn studio.
Cheap & Plastique‘s Violet Shuraka interviews Brooklyn-based artist Kelsey Henderson for issue #12. Portraits and studio shots by Violet Shuraka. All artwork ©Kelsey Henderson. See more of Kelsey’s work here.
C & P: You live and work in Brooklyn, NYC. How long have you been in the city and what brought you to New York originally?
Kelsey: I moved here in 2006, so in September it will have been 10 years. Wow.
I moved here knowing I needed to be around driven and motivated people. Wanted
a dose of healthy competitive drive to keep me going and not complacent.
C & P: Your studio has been located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn since 2011, have you witnessed a drastic change in the neighborhood over the past few years?
Kelsey: Of course, it’s constantly changing but I hardly focus on that stuff till it hits me in the face like now—losing my studio of 7 years and realizing how messed up the price of studios in the area are. Charging apartment prices for commercial spaces shows a lack of appreciation for the arts and that the primary focus is on money, which really bums me out.
C & P: Much of your work consists of figurative oil paintings. How long have you been painting the figure? What first interested you in the figure as subject matter?
Kelsey: All my life I’ve focused on people. It’s my natural instinct and one of my favorite things to do. If there’s something that draws me in about someone, I like giving myself the time to look at and study them. Plus I find it to be challenging technically, which I enjoy. It’s good to do things that aren’t easy.
C & P: Who are the people in your paintings? Do you ever paint from a live model or do you utilize imagery from pop culture (or unpopular culture) as your subjects?
Kelsey: I used to only work from life since that’s how I was taught to work. I think it was a good practice when I was in school to create a strong relationship between my hands and eyes, but once I started becoming more conceptually focused it wasn’t necessary. Now I work from photos that I take or found photos. Whether or not I know the person directly in the paintings I want to make sure that it’s more about the message I’m making with the image vs. a formal portrait painting.
C & P: The figures that show up in your most recent work have shifted from portraits of friends/people you know to paintings of imagined ‘zine covers, which include both figures and text. You have said the images of people in this series are taken from old video cassette covers, hardcore music videos, punk magazine layouts and the text in the paintings is from various vintage pin up/erotic magazine covers. What inspired this change in the subject matter of your work?
Kelsey: That’s not all true… Most of the figures painted in this series are found by searching through 70-90s subculture images. Some being famous people, others who are not. Mostly just from photos taken from people involved in the scene at the time. And the layout and the text comes from old porn magazines. I’m pretty much making fake magazines that I wish existed, that I’d love to buy. Creating a different sense of idealism or desire than what the mainstream suggests.
C & P: Some titles of the current body of work in your studio are Teenage Extreme (tagged with Hot Straight Edge Boys), Pleasure—Number One In Excitement, Punished, Suck, Teenager in Action, which are all quite sexually suggestive. The figure that is matched up with the various title is usually a punk/hardcore/skinhead boy or girl. What draws you to the denizens of these particular underground subcultures? Do you think the underground is particularly sexually liberated?
Kelsey: I’m more focused on shifting the sexual read of the text and giving it a different reading. Which is why I don’t want to use any old porn magazines that blatantly say “SEX” “PORN” etc… I like the double play on the text… But if the painting says “Teenage Extreme” and it’s and image of a hardcore straightedge younger guy singing as hard as he can… then that text is more about a kid being hard.
On the flip side, clearly, I do want to play with the fantasized aspect of the porn magazines. These are forms of beauty that I’m drawn to, that I’m sincerely attracted to… I’m also aware of our culture’s (especially in fashion) detached rip offs and pulls from these subcultures as well—which totally turns me off.
So I’m playing with a lot of different aspects with this work and I have a lot to say about it all, which is why I know it’s important to make.
C & P: You mentioned Bruce La Bruce as an influence. His film and photography work also eroticize skinhead and punk subcultures. He was involved in the punk scene in Toronto in the early 90s, producing underground fanzines, making manifestos, and expressing his politics through a do-it-yourself style. What do you think draws you both to politically incorrect imagery and to and society’s “outsiders”?
Kelsey: I don’t think I said that. I had only recently (tho I’m not proud to admit) seen a couple of his films or looked into his work after starting my recent work. I was actually relieved I hadn’t seen his work before because it felt similar to my Crocodiles video that I made… and it may have influenced me if I had seen it prior, but I’m happy I’ve seen it now.
I love outsiders because I think a level of rebellion is important in life. The world and the people in it can’t grow without being challenged and aware that there are things beyond the norm.
C & P: Your painting technique on your most recent work calls to mind artists such as John Baldessari and Gerhard Richter, with your reduced palette and the inclusion of text. Are you responsive to these artists?
Kelsey: I mean I always loved Gerhard Richter, but with this particular body of work it feels very personal and sincere so I’m kind of stuck in my own bubble right now. I’ve always loved text and words so it’s been a really satisfying moment for me to combine these loves.
C & P: Music seems to play an important role in both your day to day life and your artwork. Are there certain bands that you will listen to for inspiration while painting? Has music always been so important to you?
Kelsey: What I listen to when I’m painting depends on my mood. I usually try to stick with something upbeat or dance-y to keep myself in the zone and energized. I don’t want to end up crying or anything while I’m working (ha ha!)
When I was a kid music wasn’t as important to me. I liked it but it didn’t hit the deep chords in my body and soul that it does today. I think the shift happened in high school when I listened to the widest range of music I’ve ever listened to—from requiems to jazz to classic rock to electronic music etc, etc… That’s when it became incredibly important to me and strongly instinctual to knowing what I liked.
C & P: A lot of people claim that New York is “dead” artistically and musically but I emphatically disagree. Do you feel that there is still a vibrant underground scene in New York City?
Kelsey: 100%. I think anyone who says it’s dead has stopped going to shows or stopped checking out scenes they didnt know about. There’s A LOT of amazing music being made right now in New York that isn’t well known.
C & P: You recently directed videos for the band Soft Moon and Crocodiles. How did the collaboration come about? How did the bands approach you to direct? Is directing something that you’d like to do more of in the future?
Kelsey: It was a nice trickle effect. I had been working on my own video projects that I’ve previewed in brief clips on Instagram. Then I was approached by my now friend Brandon from Crocodiles about using what he had seen for a video and I felt it best to create something specific for it and luckily both he and Chuck were both kind and trusting enough to let me make whatever I wanted with some discussed themes in mind. And from that I got the attention of Marco Rapisarda, who is The Soft Moon’s manager, and was asked to make a video for them.
I’ve always wanted to make music videos, I daydream about them all the time when I’m listening to music on my own—creating visuals in my head—so it was a wonderful experience. Would love to make more in the future.
C & P: Tell me a little bit about your “Yearbook/Yearfuck Class of 2015” photo project that I see you have started on Instagram. Is this directly related to the music video projects you have been working on?
Kelsey: That project is more connected to my newer paintings that I’ve been making. Creating false realities and showing subcultures as the mainstream way of life. Ultimately showing the rest of the world that within a subculture, we are the norm and the rest of the world is on the outside? Showing my reality, etc… I’m intending, and hoping, to show all of my recent work in one large show and also putting it all together in a book.
The idea came from being inspired by my friends and the people around me but knowing I had no time to paint them all. So I created the fake yearbook idea as a time capsule and spoof on the world we grew up in, creating the dream Class of 2015.
C & P: Describe a studio day. Is there a certain time of the day when you work best and are most productive? Do you have certain habits that you stick to in regards to your art making schedule?
Kelsey: When I’m on a role, I’ll get there in time for a late lunch (getting to order food from places that don’t deliver to my apt., ha ha) and then usually leave no later than 10 PM. I’ve got a pup so I always have to schedule my days around her but it’s not too much of a hassle and I like having my nights to be social since I’m alone all day. I mostly just go in, put some music on and get working.
C & P: Are you more influenced by looking at the work of other painters and artists or do you feel that you are more stimulated by the massive amount of visual information you are exposed to on a daily basis in the city, through advertising, the internet, television, etc…?
Kelsey: If anything I guess random internet rabbit hole searches are the most inspiring and then would come my daily life… Taking what I see and experience and then romantically reflecting on it all and trying to show what’s in my head in that light. I do love looking at other artist’s work but in honesty I don’t do it very much. (someone should slap my wrist for that, ha!)
C & P: What projects are you working on now? Where can we see your work in the near future?
Kelsey: I’m still working on the fake magazine paintings, videos, and photos. It’s a big project I’m trying to make, connecting all of those things so it will take some time. The best place for now is Instagram @pallidspell and from there I’ll announce any shows etc…