One might call Mike John Kelly a Post-neo-conceptualist-abstract-expressionist. Kelly’s multidimensional abstract canvases are explorations of his personal philosophy, learning and experience and are a road to self-discovery.At 33, the Salt Lake-based artist has had a long and profound journey, unraveling the inner-workings of himself and the inner-workings of his art — not vice-versa.“My art,” says Kelly, “references something outside of myself and that thing is my heart . . . Abstraction itself is inadequate of what I do, but they are pictures of what I understand.”
Kelly’s compositions generally begin as brightly- colored abstract canvas that are gradually covered over by sheets of clear industrial plastic, layer by layer, composition upon composition, going from the vivid to the more subdued. “The first tends to be really busy. I usually have to paint out to get what I have to express.” This is a psychological process not dissimilar to Surrealist automatism; a free flow exercise of painting and drawing to access the psyche.
Abstract Expressionism, the ground-breaking conceptualism of the 60’s and 80’s Neo-expressionism are all part of Kelly’s inspired drive to good abstract work. “What they did is part of my pedigree, but the reality is that we live in a re-mix mash-up culture. Artists are reorganizing our culture into new works with heavy amounts of nostalgia.”
Kelly rejects overtly Pop references. As an artist from the west coast, his paintings, as the Pop were not, are abstractions where he is free to explore “a reflection of my personality. I paint about what I know and what is happening in my life.” This connection to his work is a process, something that emerges from piece to piece, and is a documentary reference to Kelly’s experience
Such psychological explorations of the self, resonate in form visually with the works of Motherwell, Lewis, Frankenthaller, Krasner, Buren, and Basquiat. However the differences between these artists and Kelly could not be more relevant to abstraction of today. Kelly rejects Greenburgian arguments for purity and formalism found in the artists mentioned, painting the object for its own sake and rejecting the subjectivity of both painting and viewer. As Kelly states; “Abstraction means it is self contained — our brain does not work that way-we are not robots.”
Working in the Post-modern environment, Kelly is free to express his psychology and the life that he imbues into his paint, something that would make Greenberg turn in his grave. Kelly’s work allows, as should all good abstract painting today, an open dialogue between painter and viewer. The artist is not afraid to open up — put himself “out there” and let his art speak. The viewer will likely not know Kelly’s psychological journey, but like with a painting by Rothko, they will have an engrossing experience, seeing layer upon obscured layer of color and pattern stimulating thought and feeling, a synthesis with the painting and self — abstraction’s greatest gift.
Mike John Kelly’s works will be on display at Mode Boutique (45 N. University Ave Provo, UT)
through the month of April.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. For a decade he lived in Salt Lake City and worked as a professional writer until his untimely death in 2017.