Thursday, March 25, 2010





Kelli Thompson
by: Alex Podesta | posted: Feb 1, 2010

This past November, Boston-based painter Kelli Thompson presented five new large-scale, oil on panel pieces in a two-person show at Good Children Gallery. All of these are paintings of women (four portraits and one self-portrait) staring directly out of the picture. In each, Thompson presents her subjects with some subtle wrongness or improbability—a gaudy lily behind an ear; a braid floating up as if held by an invisible hand; overly red flesh hinting at a secret embarrassment—in a deft execution that leaves the viewer feeling transfixed in voyeuristic insecurity. Thompson’s work has long focused on awkwardness in some sense or another, but in these newest pieces she has succeeded in forcing the viewer to participate in that awkwardness—to empathize with, rather than just observe, the subject.

Kelli Thompson is originally from Monroe, Louisiana and completed her undergraduate studies at the University of New Orleans. She later received an MFA from Tufts. She was back in New Orleans for the holidays and I was fortunate enough to be able to ask her about these paintings, her earlier work and her practice as an artist.

Alex Podesta: Your work seems to have gone through some changes over the past few years—seems to have gone from a more gestural to a flatter style. How would you describe those changes?

Kelli Thompson: When I began painting at UNO I was focusing mainly on the figure and was looking at a lot of Jenny Saville and Lucien Freud. The way they handle paint is very gestural. I’ve moved away from that influence towards the more controlled and tidy way in which I'm handling the paint now. That was something that happened naturally once I really got a handle on how I wanted to develop my own style of painting. The colors are still very patchy and a lot of the gesture is still there but where you say flatter, I think I would say smoother or more controlled. I was also looking at a lot of Patrick Nagel, pushing my work toward a more poppy, poster art aesthetic, which involves a less painterly technique. Blending became very important, whereas in my earlier work I wanted the paint and brushstrokes to be more evident. When I was in grad school, I struggled a lot with the evolution of my style. Ultimately though, I decided that the only way to make good work is to make honest work, and by that I mean work that feels like me—not contrived.

AP: In the past, you’ve written that you “use a highly synthetic palette to reformulate the look of skin” and that you “over-describe the surface of the flesh so that every detail remains in focus.” Those are both nicely evocative statements about your craft. Could you elaborate?

KT: When we look at something in real life—something in front of us—our eyes cannot focus on every detail at once, sort of the way a camera would focus on a part of the image in either the foreground or background. In my painting, I try to focus on all of it at once. By hyper-defining, or over-describing, the entire surface of the flesh, I’m moving the subject a step further from reality. That disconnect is additionally enhanced by my use of synthetic pigments. I use photographs as source material in the studio. As I work on these paintings, I feel like I’m moving slowly over every inch of the photo and translating it, in my own way, into paint.

AP: Since you mention working from photographs, what is your process like?

KT: A painting starts with an interesting face that I most likely am noticing around me on a daily basis, usually a friend or acquaintance. The camera I use is my completely outdated Olympus E-500, which I leave on auto settings because I have not been able to wrap my brain around how to properly use a SLR camera no matter how many times it’s been explained to me. I generally have an idea in my mind of how I want the painting to look, and I direct the photo session from that idea. I’ll end up with hundreds of photos, from which usually around 10 stand out as being what I’m looking for. After that it’s about slowly deciding which one will really work best.

AP: So, what are you looking for when you are deciding which one will work best?

KT: All of my paintings are very staged and that staging is specifically chosen to generate a strong emotional response from the viewer. Melodrama and performance has always played an important role in my work and I’ve always been very drawn to dramatics. One of my biggest aesthetic influences is the ‘80s—that decade’s magazines, television and style in general. Everything then seemed brighter, larger than life: big hair, big shoulders, dramatic silhouettes, more stylized and defined makeup. When I was thinking about Nagel’s work, an artist very much of the ‘80s, all of the subjects look the same and are almost always passively looking away. This made them seem consumable and objectified, but it also created a very distinct body of work, a style that resonated with the time and culture in which they were made. I would like for my paintings to do that—to be specifically of the time and circumstances of their making. But unlike Nagel, I want my subjects to confront the viewer. The subjects in my paintings have shifted generally from looking away to being extremely confrontational. They’re all individuals whose identity I want to remain distinct while also falling into a larger body of work.

AP: Speaking of individual identity in your work, most of your paintings seem to feel very personal. Is this intentional or a natural by-product of your process? Or does it matter?

KT: My paintings are each very personal. At the same time there is homogeneity to them as a body of work. I don’t necessarily try to steer them in one way or another but I do focus on each painting in a very individual, personal, in-depth way. The generalization comes, I think, in the way I render the figures, the colors I use and the way in which they stare. I work very intuitively. I can’t explain too much before the piece or pieces are made, but once they come together everything seems to follow this linear development. I can see exactly what I was trying to do without really trying to do anything at all—except to make a really great piece.

AP: What do you have coming up?

KT: I will be featured in New American Paintings, Northeast Edition #86, which will be out in about four months. I’m also starting a lot of new work that I’m very excited about.

AP: I look forward to seeing the new work. Thanks and good luck.

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