"Roy Lichtenstein meets Dennis Hopper on Steroids"

Kevin Kelly’s passion for Pop Art

Luke Sparkes
26 Sep 2019

Kevin Kelly’s passion for Pop Art started when his dad would bring him home comic books before he could even read. Fascinated by the artwork, he would lick his finger and carefully turn each page, absorbing the colours, the styles, the feel of the work and interpret the stories as best he could by what the images were eliciting. Once he started school and learned to read, he found the characters in Marvel Comics more appealing but read both DC and Marvel. The power of the archetypes and iconography the characters represented; Kelly utilises them metaphorically in his paintings today.

His love of comic books had a profound effect on him as an artist. Adopting a Neo-Pop style, which is reminiscent of its elder, Pop Art; it works as a great media of entertainment by producing ephemeral images that are closer to Populance than Pop Art. Neo Pop refutes the idea that art is superior to others and aims to demonstrate that popular culture, consumer society and art on the same floor and can cohabit the same image. Something that Roy Lichenstein tried to convey.

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Kevin Kelly was once described as “Roy Lichenstein meets Dennis Hopper on Steroids”. Kelly’s work is unequivocally Neo-Pop infused with a post-modern sensibility, contemporaneous subject matter, and executed in what the artist refers to as a “hyper-chromatic” palette. And although Kelly’s paintings take a lot of inspiration from Lichtenstein, even referencing the artist in some of his pieces, Tom Wesselmann was the man who truly inspired him. Kevin spent six years as a studio assistant to Wesselmann and described him as a “paragon in the world of art, not because he possessed supernatural talent, but because of his discipline, insatiable curiosity and an unwavering dedication to his craft”. The result? Kelly creates tenacious art, fully immersive and pursued with passion.

The paintings are not only redolent of contemporary issues and politics, but excel as studies in formal definition, composition and colour. Allowing for open-ended lines of query and interpretation without the burdensome weight of didactic pretence, Kelly chooses to establish a dialogue with the viewer vis-à-vis the painted image rather than wag his finger sanctimoniously from an ivory tower like so much “activist art” does today. But it wasn’t always that way, even someone who creates a wry and complex admixture of sardonic social commentary, confident in its hyper-chromatic colour and bold line, was so far from self-assured, that he didn’t have his lightbulb moment until he was in his 50’s.

His biggest breakthrough moment came amidst a mid-life meltdown. He found that he was broke, age 50 and was parking cars for $6.00 an hour. He re-evaluated his entire belief system and threw out 80% of everything he held to be true. The little voice in his head told him to paint landscapes, his conscious told him not to be so ridiculous, this isn’t what people expected from Kevin T. Kelly. But it was that very thought that sparked the idea that he had confined himself to a mental prison. He was stopping himself from being the success he knew he could be. The result was a shift in both consciousness and his creative process. Prior to his landscape paintings, he was in complete control, exacting his will upon the image and creating works that were boisterous and loud. Communicated by “visually shouting” at the viewer. With these works, the process became more of a dance where the image would dictate what it needed and as a result, the communication became a subtle whisper.

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These whispers borrow more from pop art itself than from pop culture and seem to favour images pulled from his porno collection. As artists from William Burroughs to David and Salle have demonstrated, a juxtaposition does not always have a statement to make, but the irreverence of Kelly’s approach almost earns him a pass and makes his art thrilling to look at.

His success has been quick and strong, with his works having appeared on the covers of New American Paintings in 2000 and 2003, they are featured in numerous public and private collections both in the United States and abroad, including Breitling S.A., The Kinsey Institute and Procter and Gamble. In addition to having taught as an adjunct professor at The Art Academy of Cincinnati and the Baker-Hunt Foundation in Covington, KY, he has also written a critical review for Cincinnati CityBeat, Dialogue magazine, New Art Examiner and the online art journal, AEQAI.

These prestigious accolades mixed with his alluring artwork have made him incredibly investible and someone whose original paintings are being sold around the world for $30,000+. Smith and Partner have an extensive collection of Limited Editions available from Kevin Kelly.