If you’re in New York and want to bravely venture outside, we suggest heading to the Lower East Side to check out Slow Hum, a new exhibition of never-before-seen installations by Miami-based artist Kelley Johnson. Taking place at Freight + Volume, 97 Allen Street, from January 5 through February 4, 2018, we caught up with Johnson to discuss his practice, best advice he’s ever received and how music has informed his work.
Art Zealous: Morning routine?
Kelley Johnson: In the morning I get up and make breakfast for my three kids. After they leave for school, I go to the gym and work out for a bit before heading to my studio. When I first get in, I like to sit and look at the work and slowly begin working on one of the pieces to get the ball rolling for the day. I usually work on multiple pieces at the same time because it allows room for experimentation and creates a dialog with each other. One work influences the other works one by one.
AZ: Currently reading?
KJ: I am currently reading Michael Singer’s The Untethered Soul. I like that it has a lot to do with Eckhart Tolle’s ideas of being in the now and how we tend to focus on the past or the future and don’t really focus on the present moment as we should. The previous book I read by Singer was The Surrender Experiment, and it impacted me because he was being guided by some sort of a higher power. I like how he listened and let it out and let it be. This connects directly to my exhibition because it is the desire to connect to the present moment. This has helped shape the thought about how the work is presented and what I am setting up for the viewer. It is about letting intuition guide you and this relates to my work. When working, I go through a system (linear or triangular etc) and let it run and flow from there. Intuitive building.
AZ: You grew up in St. Louis and now live in Miami, how has it affected your view of the world and your art practice?
KJ: Miami is a very different place, it is not even really in the United States. It is like another country. I am so close to my process that it is hard to pinpoint how that has changed my work. The work has always been evolving. I’d say pieces are more 3-D and freer now. I would call myself a multidisciplinary artist instead of just considering myself as a painter anymore. The weather has affected my work because the pieces are not as dark and brooding as when I was in St.Louis. The tones have brightened up and color palette is overall lighter now. Sunny days are here almost every day in Miami.
AZ: One thing that stood out to us while reading the press release Slow Hum was your hope that the viewer will be able to “escape to the present.”
KJ: Escaping to the present is because we are bombarded with all of the things in modern life and constantly on the internet with images and media. It is very hard to take the time to just “be,” and I’m hoping the viewer can be present and engage with the pieces because they are not just “windows” to look through, but more objects. Slow Hum has aspects of this idea whereas a full installation of mine can completely do this. The layout of the space gives lead-ins with panels optically having dialogs around you. The eye can look at or look beyond/through the pieces.
AZ: How did you come up with the name of the exhibition?
KJ: The name is from the feeling that I get from the pieces all together and how I’d like the viewer to feel while they are going through it as well. It is a meditative state to hum. When I am working it is a very meditative process, and I want the work to vibrate in a certain way or zone. It is an action that makes it an experience.
AZ: Slow Hum is arranged to create an immersive experience for the viewer, was that important to you from the beginning?
KJ: No. What was important was the individual pieces and they slowly came together. Then, they started to have a collective hum.
AZ: Why were you drawn to the kite shape for this series, what’s the significance to you?
KJ: It is a kite form and I like the idea of this shape being light and a little unstable. This shape has the potential of flying off at any moment and is thus a bit whimsical. Kites seem flimsy but structurally they are quite strong in reality. Optically, the shape works very well with movement. When it is soaring up in the air and moves and rotates with the wind, it makes different shapes when you think of it in 2D. Also, when you are looking at this shape it is a dynamic form that has the potential of going up and beyond.
AZ: You seem to really gravitate to aspects of the Color Field Theory. Do you have any personal favorites in terms of other artists, living or dead, whose work has been tied to this style of abstract painting?
KJ: Yes, I’ve always loved Rothko and Joseph Albers. Kenneth Nolan and Frank Stella have also influenced my thinking.
AZ: We can’t help but notice the musical references. Who are some of your favorite musicians? Do you listen to music while you are creating?
KJ: Yes, I definitely listen to music while I make work. I get fixated on certain groups or albums to get me in the right vibe that inspires the wavelength/feeling that I’m looking for. I’ll max them out until I’m tired of it and I eventually have worked through to the next ideas. Lately, I have been changing them up more. A few solo shows back, I only listened to Metric and Phantogram, but then there will be other times where I’ll listen to things like older music from 70’s.
AZ: We appreciate your use of color, what significance does color play in your work?
KJ: I use color as an optical tool, to push or pull space and to create form. I use them to make vibrations in the work. Colors have the potential of interacting with each other to create optical energy that can set a condition for the viewer to enter into.
AZ: Best advice you’ve ever received?
KJ: When you are unsure of something just keep working. Put your head down and continue working and eventually something will emerge. Trust yourself and keep going.
AZ: What’s next for you?
KJ: I have some group shows coming up soon, but I’m most excited about the next pieces I am making. This is a new body of work and there are other pieces that are currently being born in the studio. I’m excited to continue with these ideas that are still fresh areas for me.
AZ: How can we stay in touch?
all images // courtesy of the artist
top image // Stripes Diptych series, 2017