The New Organic: In the Studio with Ken Kelly

Studio view. Ken Kelly, work in progress.

Ken Kelly's studio is a quick walk from his Seattle home. Sandwiched between two freeways, it's a surprisingly quiet enclave of artists (Gretchen BennettJeffry MitchellMatthew Offenbacher, and Jenny Heishman) that occupies the top floor of Roy McMakin's Big Leaf Mfg shop.

Kelly was primarily known for his 15-year run of heavily patterned paintings, full of hidden angular skulls and third eyes created through faux symmetry. The work felt ancient and a bit mystical. Then in 2007, in what seemed to be an overnight change, Kelly abandoned his trademark calligraphic curves for freehand strokes of angular fields rendered with a minimal palette. The new work pushed his previous mysticism into a state of vibrancy that shimmers, hums and pulses.

More after the jump! —Joey Veltkamp, Seattle contributor

Ken Kelly. TOP: Wizard, 1996, Oil & acrylic paint, 40 x 32 inches. BOTTOM: Theory, 2007, Oil & enamel on canvas, 60 x 84 inches. Images courtesy Howard House, Seattle.

Saying of his new change in direction in 2007, Kelly explains, “My imagery consists of fairly basic patterns, basically nothing but little paint marks arranged in somewhat repetitive configurations. Yet, viewers manage to see digital circuitry, African weaving, cityscapes at night, Mondrian's Broadway Boogie-Woogie, right on down to the weathered tablecloths in a Southern greasy spoon. That, to me, is the point: the way in which basic, universal configurations of simple units can end up constructing, in a viewers mind, an incredible range of things — a range that is, ultimately, limitless."

When I suggested to Ken that, compared to what he was making 10 years ago, his work now doesn't feel like an evolution, but rather a rebellion, he commented that I'm not the first one to suggest the same. In fact, his new dealer, John Braseth (Woodside/Braseth Gallery) called it a rejection.

Ken Kelly. TOP: Metro, 2007 | Oil & enamel on canvas, 60 x 48 inches. BOTTOM: Grove, 2009, Oil on canvas, 16 x 18 inches. Images courtesy Howard House, Seattle.

Kelly struggles with the idea of renouncing his previous work. He tells me he felt like he had pushed that body of work as far as he could and kept pushing up against it—he wanted that feeling of possibility again. We discuss how, even if it is a rejection, it doesn't negate any of the previous work.

His progression as an artist mirrors the collective consciousness as we transition from the natural to the digital. Ken notes this wasn't intentional, and that in fact it's just the opposite; for the organic-seeming paintings, he relied on technology (stencils), but the new works look stenciled even if each mark is handmade. Four years into this new chapter and Kelly is still excited about the unknown and the inevitable and exciting possibility of error

Ken Kelly, Studio & detail shots, works in progress

Ken Kelly has upcoming shows at both The Sorrento (curated by Roy McMakin) and Woodside/Braseth Gallery.

Joey Veltkamp is an artist/writer living in Seattle where he runs the local art blog, best of.

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