Kelsey Shwetz’s paintings bring to mind fantastic landscapes and ornamented interior spaces at the same time. Her imagery depicts artificial environments saturated with unexpected color combinations, altogether conjuring intense psychological urgency- unsettling yet playful. In this interview with Art Spiel Shwetz shared some of her thoughts, specifically about color, narrative and style.
AS: You were born in Canada and now based in Brooklyn. Tell me a bit about your background.
Kelsey Shwetz: I was born and grew up in the prairie city of Winnipeg in Canada, where I got a degree in Psychology. As a young adult I moved to Costa Rica, and then settled in Montreal. While there, I met an amazing and supportive group of artists who really changed the course of my life – in 2012 I decided to apply for an MFA in New York and I’ve been here since then.
AS: From what I saw of your work you are fearless of color. Tell me about your love of color – what does color mean to you and in your painting process?
Kelsey Shwetz: In my paintings I often set up color as a problem to solve. I’ll cover the entire canvas in a difficult color, like a neon, which sets up a call and response for each color I lay down next. It’s a way of disorienting myself. Colors that I’m familiar with, like say Viridian or Thio Violet, behave quite differently on those grounds – they can vibrate, or look brown.
Saturated color for me indicates a dream state, or a state that is other than linear reality. In that way color becomes a formal device, to signal that the environment is constructed from more than one unreliable source and liable to change. I like the idea of parts of a painting shifting in color or intensity, as if they were activated by the presence of a figure or celestial body moving about the canvas space.
AS: You say that you are aiming to create work that projects multiple moods and experiences at the same time. Can you elaborate on that?
Kelsey Shwetz: I mean work that sets up a kind of tension. Between figure and ground, or color, or light- I like to ask: is this a dark painting or a bright painting? And how can I make it both? I also think about doubling, twinning, mirroring. If the figure is watching something and we’re watching her, or, if we’re separated from the figure, which one of us is more exposed? I’m thinking of these recent works as records of out of body experiences, where we’re watching ourselves doing something private.
AS: You mentioned that in your recent body of paintings you enable the viewer to follow an anonymous, opaque woman as she moves through a series relatively legible scenarios – each canvas articulates part of her origin story, Can you elaborate on that?
Kelsey Shwetz: If we believe that all feelings we are made to experience are produced in us through the intermediary of an image, that in the apparatus of our emotions the image is the essential element- it’s reasonable to say that a large part of any real person remains opaque to us.
We can only perceive what is happening inside of them through our senses and what they’re projecting through cues.
In each canvas we’re seeing one part of this figure in isolation but multiple canvases can be read in sequence like a narrative. That makes up a more complete image of her. I used the phrase “origin story” because the figure only exists physically on a canvas and emotionally within the viewer so she’s only brought into existence when viewed.
AS: Flora keeps appearing in your paintings. You related that to heritage of women’s work, specifically botanical illustrators. Can you tell me more about that and how you see your painting in relation to the notion of “illustration”?
Kelsey Shwetz: Historically women’s scientific illustrative contributions to botany have been excluded or relegated to craft or hobby (like Mary Delany’s botanically accurate paper mosaics). In her excellent essay “From Feminized Flora to Floral Feminism: Gender Representation and Botany,” Kelly McLeod relates 17th-to-19th century gender politics to the history of botanical classification and representation, and shows how women have more recently reclaimed the botanical metaphor.
When I think of illustration I think of a 1:1 relationship between the original and created object. I do a lot of botanical-based research and often try to make faithful representations of plants in my paintings. Plants are a way to reference naturalism in my work. They provide a clue that the world in the paintings is somehow related to the world we inhabit. Although I often think of this place as a non-human world or else, one where the plants have human characteristics – vanity, shyness, volition.
Maybe they’re sentient and can turn their faces to the viewer.
AS: In your previous work you seemed to focus more on the figure in interior contexts. Do you agree with that observation? How do you see your new body of work in this context?
Kelsey Shwetz: Yes, in previous work all the figures were in some interior context, or often there was no environment at all. For me the defining characteristic of an interior space is that you feel protected and somewhat in control. Maybe that’s why I hate camping. It feels too uncanny -just a thin piece of fabric separating you from everything else.
In my recent work I’m thinking of spaces that read as both interior and exterior, or that have characteristics of both. In Bad Habits Forest, for instance, the figure is obviously outside, but to me this functions as an interior space. I think of her as sitting in bed. In Portal Forest things like windows, a potted plant, and a cat signal an interior, but the space feels wild. In my latest work, Bangs, we’re outside but all the action is happening inside.
AS: Tell me about your painting process. How do you start a painting?
Kelsey Shwetz: I’ll start with a reference that isn’t visual. Like a line from literature, a memory, a snip from a conversation, or even a physical pun. Then I’ll spend some time trying to actualize it, think about what it looks like, or could look like. I’ll stretch a canvas and paint a ground, then I’ll just piece in what I already know and let the next moves respond to the previous ones -it is a dance until I feel like it is expressing what I need it to express, and is visually interesting.
AS: What does “style” mean to you?
Kelsey Shwetz: Style is the aggregate of all successful moves you’ve ever made. You’ve metabolized them and they come out almost as automatic solutions to problems. What’s completely different than style are those confusing passages you make that often get painted over, or those weird drawings, where you’re like: where did that come from?
At a lecture EJ Hauser gave at Columbia she said that these were “gifts from the future”. Maybe they’re not right for this exact painting here but you’re predicting something that will show up again in the future, and it’s good to pay attention to these weird ghosts.
AS: I am intrigued by your concept of “Eden”. You said that you are interested in how we might orient ourselves to an Edenic environment, and how we might bring our bad habits with us there. Can you elaborate on that?
Kelsey Shwetz: My paintings are reflexive about the “women in paradise” trope. Growing up Catholic, I’ve spent a lot of time kneeling on hard wooden pews thinking about what Eden might look and feel like. Actually, I liken Edenic environments to artist residencies. You land in this completely new space where all regular responsibilities , schedules, and structures are suspended. Your entire job is to focus on making work so you’re in a state of grace.
But for me at least, no matter how I try to recalibrate my schedule or shift into a more productive mode, my typical ways creep in by the end of the first week. It makes me think about what part of us is changeable and what part is nature. In this recent work I’m trying to coalesce two concepts that can seem diametrically opposed: paradise and bad habits (also what makes a habit bad?).
AS: What are you working on now?
Kelsey Shwetz: Right now I’m making a painting about sharpness and dryness turning to puffy soft juiciness. The figure is moving through a desert landscape and everything in her wake is changing form.
I did an artist residency in New Mexico a few years ago and I had never been to the American desert. It was shocking how everything beautiful there resists your touch or punishes you when you try to touch it. Even a soft seeming flower has unseeable spikes that lodge in your skin. And of course the sunsets are untouchable and then mountains, if you ever reach them, are just rocks.