This month for our #ArtPowerWomen series, we sat down with Kelsey Shwetz, a Brooklyn-based artist whose most recent paintings follow an anonymous, opaque woman as she moves through a series of more or less legible scenarios. It’s hard not to be enamored by her brightly dark color, neon palettes and a preponderance of flora in these incredible Edenic environments Shwetz creates.
We caught up with Shwetz to discuss her educational background, the female gaze, and the origin of the character in her most recent work Wetlands.
Art Zealous: Hometown?
Kelsey Shwetz: I grew up in Canada; I was born in a prairie city, Winnipeg, Manitoba, and then moved to Montreal before coming to New York.
AZ: Zodiac sign?
AZ: What are your current inspirations/reference points?
KS: Mostly every idea for a painting I make germinates from an impulse (such as being moved by a passage of a book, or a particular experience, or a conversation), and then becomes carefully considered, thinking about how to translate it to a painting. Djuna Barnes’ novel, Nightwood, for example, has been a text that I’ve pulled a lot of ideas from. I also spent a lot of time researching plants, spending time at botanical gardens, or taking photos of spaces that seem like they could become a setting for a painting.
AZ: You’re currently studying Advanced Painting Intensive at Columbia University, has your education thus far informed your work?
KS: Definitely. The program is rigorous, and there’s been a minimum of three studio visits per week (both from faculty and visiting artists), so I’ve spent a lot of time talking through my work and metabolizing critiques of it. I’ve learned a lot about my work, I’ve realized that creating psychological spaces is something I’m interested in, and then thinking about how the figure (if there is one present at all) interacts with these spaces. In this program, I’ve begun to think of my work beyond figure/ground relationships, and ask myself which parts of this painting are the nouns? The adjectives?
AZ: Gardens, greenery and bright neon colors seem to be a recurring theme in your work? Can you talk to us about that?
KS: I’ve been starting my paintings with a neon ground, as a way to set up a color problem for myself to solve. A phthalo turquoise pigment I’m familiar with will look quite different on a white ground versus a neon pink ground, so it’s a way to start a work from a place of disorientation and then work my out from there. I also like the way neon references artificial light. I imagine these gardens with nightclub lighting. The garden, it’s a created environment where things are flourishing around the figure, even without her tending them at the moment. The plants are a testament of calm and abundance that she isn’t always aware of but that at times shield her, or obstruct her. They’re also a way to reference naturalism in this world. They provide a clue that this place is somehow related to the place we inhabit. Although I often think of this as a non-human world or one where the plants have human characteristics. Maybe they’re sentient and can turn their faces to the viewer.
AZ: What’s the origin of this female character in your most recent work Wetlands?
KS: She’s the central character or figure in this world I’ve been painting. I think of this character as autobiographical, but also a detached form; for the moment you are viewing her she’s also viewing herself somehow, maybe through you or through another form in the painting.
AZ: How did you come up with the name Wetlands?
KS: I was thinking about how “wetness” as it relates to the body has a lot of gendered connotations. So, bodily processes like crying, menstruating, female arousal, those are all wet experiences. Then thinking about how peeing outside is never a simple proposition when you have to basically disrobe and squat down. It becomes an intense experience because there’s a fear that someone will find you in this vulnerable position, so you’re acutely aware of your surroundings, and they can almost become ominous. I was interested in making a painting where the landscape felt ominous and wet as well.
AZ: You’ve said your work is about the female gaze and working through sexuality and your own experiences. Lately, you’ve found that researching women’s first novels has guided you in that.
KS: I think the first novel has enormous potential to be a record of experience for the author leading up to the writing of it. You have the freedom to draw on an entire lifetime of experiences without the risk of repeating yourself so you can be completely autobiographical in the creation of characters, and that seems like a very sincere place to write from, for me. I’ve spent the last year reading mostly first novels by women, some contemporary, some not because I find in them a wealth of honest communication about how it’s been for them to move through life. I’ve found that I related to a lot.
AZ: In some of your works, you tackle activities or rituals that are typically private or that may be embarrassing. We can’t help but see ourselves in these works, and think about the concept of having an “out of body experience,” was this intentional?
KS: Yes, definitely. I’ve been thinking a lot about moments when we’re so wrapped up in what we’re doing with our body that we’re almost separate from it, paintings I’ve made about binging, masturbating, peeing outside all get at this. Dreaming might be another, more abstract instance. Sometimes in these moments, it feels like we are having an out of body experience because objects or our surroundings snap into sharp focus. We’re not able to see ourselves in these moments though, so I started to imagine what it might look like if we could. A lot of these specific moments we’d be horrified if someone could see us! So maybe these works try to confront that fear as well.
AZ: We love your description of the women you portray in your work. The activities that she’s doing, her surroundings, and what society expects of her, do you relate to her?
KS: She is, quite literally, me. Formally the figure in this body of work started out as a body described by lines, or a silhouette, and then as I made more work, the figure became an obvious self-portrait. I think by having the figure begin to look like me, I was able to access a more sincere reference point, and strangely, even though the figure has a specific likeness, I think she is more relatable this way.
AZ: What do you do with your alone time?
KS: If I’m alone and it’s nice outside, I will find some grass to lay on. I’m just drawn to grass! Maybe it’s the prairie origin, but I find it deeply relaxing. I’ll read, or write letters to my friends. I love being alone. Usually when I have spare alone time I’m painting.
AZ: In your previous work “Satisfaction,” you use overt symbols or signs around female issues. In one piece, you see a woman who has blood on her thighs, and there’s no way of getting around what that painting was about. Are you excited to create work that perhaps the viewer is unsure about and create more tension?
KS: Yes. I want to challenge myself to create slower paintings, where there is a longer line between first viewing and understanding. What I’d like, instead of telling a viewer what to think, or what I think, is to provide a visual landscape where a truth can be uncovered.
AZ: One piece of advice you’d like to share with your fellow female artists.
KS: Don’t feel that working intuitively or instinctually has a different value structure than working in a conceptual or hard-research based way. What we call “intuition” or working from the heart or gut or whatever, is actually an amalgamation of years of experiences you’ve processed and media you’ve consumed and mistakes you’ve learned from. It’s all been metabolized and carefully organized, and you’re just drawing from an internal catalogue.
AZ: What’s next for you?
KS: I’m moving in to a new studio that is just blocks away from my apartment (yes!), a few group shows on the horizon -my last solo show came down in April, so this summer I’ll be making a new body of work, and I’ll be teaching a workshop at UCLA near the end of summer. Laying on some grass, too, this summer.
AZ: How can we stay in touch?
KS: I’m @kelseyshwetz on Instagram, you can keep in touch and see what I’m working on there!
Check out more of Kelsey’s artworks on Curatious.
#ArtPowerWomen series mission is to increase the visibility of important, unrepresented women artists. Art Zealous has teamed up in a pro bono collaboration with Curatious and GirlSeesArt. To be considered for the series, post your work with #artpowerwomen.
all images// courtesy of the artist