Keisha Prioleau-Martin: I Have Been the Dancer

Keisha Prioleau-Martin in her Bushwick studio with her paintings. Photo credit: Luke Lunsford 2021

The figures in New York City based painter Keisha Prioleau-Martin, become an essence of motion and emotion – exuding a sense of radical joy and playfulness, expressed through gestural brushstrokes and vibrant colors.

Tell me a bit about yourself and what drew you to figurative painting– individual, pairs, and groups. Sometimes they give the sense of people you may know from your own.

My interest in story telling and my curiosity around everyday people plays are my biggest reasons for creating figurative paintings.Growing up in the city raised by my friendly community-driven parents gave me an interest for building friendships or interpersonal relationships in general. You’re right my paintings do have the sense that I may know the people in my paintings personally but I do not know them they are combinations of general observations of people. At times the figures are the feeling of a specific person or the feeling of a relationship between two individuals. In other words they are partly invented and partly portraits of real people.

Your paintings are inhabiting characters’ lives, perhaps even some self-portraits, and at other times they seem to be referencing dreams or myths. Let’s take a look at this context on a couple of paintings: On my Way Pon Di Road (2019) and The Forest Frolicked Around Us (2018).

They are characters sometimes and other times those characters are me. In On My Way Pon di road I am relating the joy this person is feeling in Dancing. I used a lot of my own feelings to find this figure. I was asking myself – What would it look like to find someone completely immersed in the dancing that they are doing on the sidewalk? The originally few drawings had this person wearing headphones, hair flying around an impressed audience on the street. I have been the dancer and the audience in this scenario and when I have been watching this dancer I am excited and inspired by the exploding energy they are displaying.

In The Forest Frolicked around Us I am loosely referencing a day dream of Midsummer Night’s Dream. A painting of many figures dancing in a forest has a lot of opportunity for dynamic spatial interactions and strange magical events taking place . The rhythm of the slender tree trunks with stiff dance partners as the figures wrapped around them.

Keisha Prioleau-Martin , On My Way Pon Di Road, 2019, Acrylic on Canvas, 42” x 42” ,courtesy of Ortega y Gasset
Keisha Prioleau-Martin, The Forest Frolicked Around Us, 2018, Acrylic on Canvas, 30” x 24”, courtesy of the artist

Your colors are vibrant and bold. What is your approach to color?

I enjoy challenging myself to find color interactions that make colors shift slightly, keeping in mind that a color pallet can have an effect on the mood of the piece. Colors are emotional elements, but I am also very playful with it, pairing colors together, enjoying the way they interact. I am a fan of Albers’ book Interaction of Color.

Figures are an opportunity to play with color too. To control the color composition, I ignore local color assignments. I rarely use earth colors unless I need them and when I need them, they aren’t where you expect them to be.

Tell me about your process. How do you start a painting?

I loosely fill the ground with a color, often leaving some parts white to consider later. Then I paint figures, plants, bikes, patterns and other elements of the painting. Sometimes referring to a series of drawings used for a painting idea. You could call them studies. I add moves like playing chess and circle around the target until the painting is finished. Painting rarely is a straight shot beginning to end. It’s usually— painting, Looking, Questioning, erasing, adding, looking away, coming back then confidently sticking the landing.

Keisha Prioleau-Martin, I Hiked for the HotTub ,2019, Acrylic on Canvas, 48” x 36” ,courtesy of the artist

Your figures are often defined with lines. Drawing seems to be central – how do you see the relationship between drawing and painting in your work?

They aren’t all lines but I do reference drawing in a painting. I’m interested in using different marks to arrive at an image. Sometimes figures have no line at all. I do love paying homage to drawing by utilizing line and erasure because those are ways of making marks. Lines are one of my favorite marks.

I am so happy about this question because I love drawing with all my heart as much as I love painting. Drawing can have an efficiency, a relationship to note taking to mark making . I am excited that the line can be a note. A drawing can be a thing or fat form. A line can be playful, full of movement, it can be fast or slow. Sometimes painting is like this too. The relationship between drawing and painting is very similar—you can build up and subtract in similar ways.

Your paintings give a sense of movement and free flow, even dance. I believe that reference to dance was made in “Footloose”, your two person show at Ortega Y Gasset Projects, curated by Catherine Haggarty. What are your thoughts on your body of work in that show?

I have fond memories of that show. I was painting these figures dancing joyfully in a Utopia. Dancing is a real treat for all of us. It can be courageous. Looking back, I am impressed with how it turned out.hen Catherine invited me to the show with the idea of Footloose, It inspired me to pick myself up. I was having a hard time that year, a lot of sad things had happened, and I was worried I couldn’t make a happy show but I succeeded. Those paintings were loose and glowing and light.

Keisha Prioleau-Martin, Pre-game Grooming, 2019, Acrylic on Canvas 68” x 50”, Courtesy of the artist

What are you working on these days?

I am painting a good amount of people pursuing little pleasures. House plants and bikes have made appearances, and I am working on an idea of the campfire, or small communities brought to a common space by one thing. I am excited to see how that develops.

Keisha Prioleau-Martin, Laying in Forming Grass 2021 Acrylic on Linen 11″ x 14″, Courtesy of the artist

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: