Daniel Sean Kelly
Interview by Yasmine Rix
Published July 2015
Daniel Sean Kelly's work looks at human behaviour and the tools which help to define a culture. Through painting and sculpture Kelly investigates themes of dress, uniform and ritual.
Looking at your most recent works on website, your paintings are different to what I've been used to seeing, that being more abstract as well as sculptural. What would you say has directed your choice of practice?
My work has changed quite a lot over the last year but its still coming from the same place, which is essentially an interest in the relationship between people and their surroundings - the only difference is that I am now choosing to depict those people, and I feel the best way to do that is in a painting. I am still making sculptures as well, and don't really see any medium as something artists should limit themselves to, or at least not if your work is motivated by ideas. My work has never been abstract in the true sense, it has always been about something or of something, but I am interested in abstraction as a process, paring down reality into a simplified form, and that has continued in my recent work.
Although my work over the last few years has been mostly sculptures I have painted a lot in the past, its just that I never really found a good application for my ideas in painting before. One of the things I really valued about painting is the energy and immediacy that can sometimes become lost in the process of making sculpture, which is usually more drawn out and requires some level of planning. My approach to making sculpture had begun to loosen up, using a lot of rough and simple techniques like papier mache, in an effort to try to capture some of that energy, so it was a natural step that I should start painting again next.
Also I always used to say that I was really jealous of painters because the constraints of their studio practice are more clearly defined, and having those constraints can be really helpful to having a good creative process, like knowing that you will use oil paint and a paint brush and you can go into the studio and pick them up and just get on with it. So I decided to stop moaning about it and just do some painting, which I have found really liberating and enjoyable.
Men Playing, oil on board, 2015
I can see why you would find moving to painting so appealing! You mention an interest between people and their surroundings, I was wondering why not your own relationship with things or people, or are you choosing to take a kind of outsider perspective? Can you tell us a bit more about the story behind your new paintings also as I feel like they have something amusing to say…
The work is about my relationship with the material world, its not possible for me to truly know how other people perceive or experience reality so I can only make work based on my ideas, although I hope that what I make relates to other peoples experiences as well. Where the work comes from is a desire to get close to some basic, primal root of what it is to be a human being living now. The sculptures I was making last year were about objects which exist in a first level of understanding or consciousness - objects which are absolutes, they have a simple function and exist across cultures, and have continued to be used in the same way for a long time. They are objects which haven’t been superseded, that are still required in some form no matter how technology advances - for example, the brush, the bucket, the bottle.
How the scenes in the paintings arose was that I wanted to depict people interacting with these objects and their environment, and I felt that I could do that best in the form of a painting. I wanted to use the form of the human being as a 'blank', devoid of context or connotation - thats why they are naked, and thats why they are white and male. I am white and male and I feel that depicting any other kind of human being in this blank, object-like way would be really problematic. I'm happy that you find my paintings funny - they make me laugh, as does most of what I make, but its not why I make the work. Admittedly the situations depicted in my paintings could be seen as absurd, but they could also be read as being quite brutal and stark. I think the absurdity stems from the fact these people are usually naked and carrying out activities with no discernible purpose, I am essentially seeking to depict the human being trying and failing to form connections with their environment, which is maybe part of the condition of what it is to be human.
A Display (Il Bagatto), felt, unfired clay, 2014
I was wondering whether the significance of the clothed man was colonial at all, and i'm also interested in seeing how your work and concept develops.
That isn't directly the intention, although that is a layer of connotation for a lot of people seeing two figures, one of whom is clothed and one is naked. I am more interested in the cultural weighting of the states of dress and undress, which admittedly does have a relationship to the history of people colonising each other, in terms of clothing being used as a statement of power or dominance by one culture over another. I am interested in the strange power and potency of clothing as objects, how they are capable of carrying very nuanced meanings, of conveying cultural identity with great efficiency - how is it that a man with a certain type of hat on his head says something different to a man with a rock on his head?
I was making work based on objects which have been used as symbols across different cultures, because these are the objects, like I mentioned earlier, which seem to have a potency in the human consciousness, they seem to poke some primal part of your brain. Like a Key, a Loaf of Bread, a Shoe, an Axe. These are the objects that are still used as icons on a desktop, they have a skeuomorphic persistence. The Naked Man or Wild Man or Woodwose is one of these things, its been used in heraldry, in folk lore, and throughout the history of art. But what I am talking about is more the Naked Man as a symbol rather than a naked person, the figures in my paintings are de-personified, they are helpless, puppet-like, they have very little agency or ability to control the setting they find themselves in. I am really interested in European art from the Renaissance, around the time when the printing press was invented, like Durer’s engravings for the Ship of Fools or the work of The Master of the Playing Cards, where the fugures seem to be devoid of power, cut adrift in a world they are unable to affect. The socio-political and technological changes of the 15th century are arguably quite similar to things that are taking place in our time.
The states of dress that I am examining in my work are exaggerated, costume-like - their ‘object-ness’ is emphasised. They are forms of Hyper-Dress, not the standard clothing of life in 21st century England, they are forms of costume belonging to some very specific European folk subcultures, and I am mainly interested in the ways that people, culture and objects all grow together and inform one another. I am interested in instances where human culture has gone down a blind alley and ended up somewhere unusual, where you end up with an object that is baffling or seemingly dislocated, objects that don't fit in with the archetypal image in your head. These forms of hyper-dress are the opposite of the archetypal or symbolic form of an object - if I said "imagine some clothes" you probably wouldn't imagine what the people are wearing in these paintings.
Man Walking Down a Hill, oil on board, 2015
As someone with a museum studies background, I find people have difficulty relating to objects [which as you say relate to a first level of understanding of consciousness], mainly because they are things that are still so commonplace today. Do you think people can appreciate objects more once they become imitated or developed as an art form? I feel you are exploring what Van Gogh did with '[peasant] Shoes', of which Heidegger was inspired to write his theory on phenomenology, that is exploring an objects essence of itself.
I'm surprised that you've found people can't relate to common place objects in museums, if anything I think these are the ones which have the most interest in terms of revealing our relationship with the past, which allow us to feel a continuity or challenge the idea that the past is that much of a different place from the present. That said, I'm also really interested in unusual objects, those which are difficult to name or to understand what purpose they would serve because their use or place in collective consciousness has been lost. Also in objects which fit into a commonplace category but which are totally non-archetypal. An example I am thinking of is dart boards - there will be the archetypal dart board that you picture in your mind, but there is lots of other kinds, like the Belgian dartboard or the 'Wide Fives' board that are subtly different from what you might be picturing.
For me the interesting part of Heidegger's writing on objects and the part which has been expanded upon a lot in recent years by Graham Harman and others is his ideas around tools, suggesting that objects can be 'activated' or have agency, become entities or beings in their own right, I think these are the things that are particularly relevant to our time where digital technology has shifted human beings' relationships with their objects and the world around them, making this a much more slippery area of consciousness. Although its possibly not apparent in my work I am really interested in digital technology and the ways that it is changing us, but I am seeking to examine this relationship from a position outside of time and place - to me the work is taking place in neither the future nor past, maybe this is a foolhardy enterprise but I feel thats the way to get close to some kind of universal truth (again, probably an impossible task!)
Hatchet, unfired clay, 2014
I wanted to mention how much I enjoy your tumblr posts. You have a great eye for picking out patterns and inconsistencies from day to day in Leicester. I was curious as to whether these are still purely material observations or perhaps more personal than you think?
I just use tumblr as a sort of sketchbook like a lot of people do, its just somewhere to put things that are in progress or ideas or things to save for later, which its quite useful for. I sometimes think being an artist is the condition of noticing too much, being too observant - stuff that I put on tumblr is just stuff I've noticed.
I am interested in knowing more about your relationship with Two Queens as co-Director, Curator and Artist. Has the role changed your perspective on producing art at all and was curating 'Sculpturing' in 2013 a rewarding role to fulfil?
Doing Two Queens has definitely changed the way I approach making art. We started it in the year after graduating from our BA courses, and that has meant that we have had a reason to stay involved with producing, thinking and talking about art, which are all things that can easily be left behind after you leave university, especially if you are living and working somewhere like Leicester. Being part of Two Queens has helped us to feel part of a wider community of artist-led activity taking part across the UK, in which not being from London is not a disadvantage, and if anything can be helpful.
I think we have been able to use the advantages of living in a visual art vacuum like Leicester to our advantage, by having cheap places to live and make art and a captive audience - but it's essential to look outside your own city and community, to see what other people are doing, and try to compete in a friendly way. Curating exhibitions by others is a good thing for artists to do, because it allows you to really engage in a critical conversation with art that isn't your own. That inevitably comes to have an effect on your own approach to making art, giving you a more objective eye, the ability to try and look at the work from outside yourself, to look at it as a curator and try to think about what is really happening in the work.
I definitely feel like you are putting Leicester on the map and filling a void that was yearning for progression, and even better that you associate yourselves a lot with the digital arts. I think its really interesting whats going on in the UK with so many artist led spaces such as Two Queens. It’s good to see that you are all making connections with each other too. I wanted to ask whether you could see yourself in ten years being at the forefront of the/an 'art world' in a scenario whereby London becomes more decentralised and people realise whats going on across the country in the contemporary art scene?
I think there is recognition that contemporary art in the UK is not just happening in London, its just that there are maybe two slightly different art worlds; the London one where there is a market for contemporary art and everywhere else (where there isn't a market). What that also means is that making contemporary art everywhere else in the UK has to depend on a different source of income, whether grant funding or self-funding, and if you are thinking about visual art in the UK in ten years time that is one of the big questions, where will that money be coming from?
I think the healthiest situation is one in which there is no 'forefront', but rather a lot of different kinds of activity spread evenly across the country, with galleries communicating and sharing ideas (which already happens). The realities of trying to find affordable space in London mean that if things continue as they are, then inevitably people who want to start galleries will start looking outside of that area. There are different audiences for contemporary art, some people will only see what happens in their own city, other people will travel across the UK specifically to see an exhibition, both of those audiences are important and both should be able to access interesting stuff to go and see.
I guess I feel like the 'outside London art world' doesn't get the recognition it deserves, but perhaps then the balance would then tip over to the commercial side if it did. I also feel as though the quality of the art in artist led studios is much higher because there is no commercial influence per say or pressure to uphold a consistent style that sells. Talking about audiences, particularly in Leicester seeing as there hasn't been a new gallery as such since the closing of the City Gallery in 2009, how does Two Queens appeal to new or different visitors? Do you seek to break down those invisible barriers that the general public uphold?
Two Queens was formed to try to plug a gap in provision of visual art in Leicester, because as you say since the closure of the council funded City Gallery, there was no dedicated contemporary art space with a regular curated programme in the city, so that was one of the big reasons we formed. Now that we have a better footing in terms of the security of our situation we are keen for Two Queens to become an organisation which can have a long term presence in Leicester, and hopefully start to gain a wider audience. These are all things that we are doing work on at the moment and will be doing for a while as the organisation transitions into something that can survive long term.
I think if Two Queens has a different audience in any way from previous art activity in Leicester, it would be in terms of those I touched on before - dedicated visual arts audiences who will travel between cities if they really want to see something enough, who maybe were not drawn to things that have happened here before. I also think maybe that is a group that has developed nationally over the last few years, facilitated by the internet and social media making it easier for people to keep track of what is going on in different cities and to feel part of some kind of loose community of artist led activity. It’s an exciting thing to feel part of something bigger than just yourself, your organisation or your city.
Men Fighting #5, oil on board, 2015
I look forward to where your series is going, are there any hints on where you are thinking of going after the paintings? Have you got any exciting plans at Two Queens you can reveal coming in the next few months?
I'm currently taking part in the Summer Lodge residency at Nottingham Trent University, so for the next two weeks I will be working on some new sculptures which follow on from my recent paintings. At Two Queens we have two exciting exhibitions by guest organisations coming up; at the end of July Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun from Leeds are presenting a large group show by their members and invited guests, and at the beginning of October we will be hosting the School of the Damned interim show. In between those we also have our annual show of new work by Two Queens members at the end of August so its a busy few months!
Daniel Sean Kelly lives and works in Leicester. Recent exhibitions include AG, Two Queens, Leicester, After Party (Yay), Two Queens Leicester and Members SHow 2013, Two Queens, Leicester. Kelly is also a co-director of Two Queens Leicester.
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