*published on 16 July 2012 on THE EDGE
John Kelly sits across the table from me at Cafe Grumpy holding a bright orange cup of tea and his soulful face fills the room as his countenance cocoons the noise, creating somber rumination. Kelly does this with no effort. It is as if even tea is a performance piece.
John Kelly grew up in Jersey City, a second-generation Irish kid in a working class family and then he zoomed onto the road less taken. Kelly trained as a dancer with American Ballet Theatre, the Harkness House for Ballet Arts, with modern dance pioneer Charles Weidman, and James Waring.
As a visual artist he studied painting and drawing with Larry Rivers and Barbara Pearlman at Parsons School of Design, and painting at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts School.
His performance studies include Decroux corporeal mime at the Theatre d’lAnge Fou in Paris, trapeze and tight-wire with the Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco, and voice with Peter Elkus at the Academia Musicale Ottorino Respighi in Assisi, Italy.
When you see him perform, really embody Joni Mitchell, a crowd favorite, or Egon Schiele, or on Broadway in James Joyce’s “Dubliners” or as Spencer Reese in “The Clerk’s Tale,” a film by James Franco, you see not only the moment in front of you, but all Kelly’s connective tissue. He is fraught with purpose.
Kelly’s personal works embrace the autobiographical, cultural and political phenomenon such as the Berlin Wall, Troubadours, the AIDS epidemic, and Expressionistic Film. He also created ambitious character studies based on historic figures such as Caravaggio, Antonin Artaud, and Jean Cocteau.
Every piece of his diverse, perhaps even obscure training is incorporated into the salmagundi that is Kelly. His work is transformative for the audience and for him as well.
A middle-aged artist
Kelly’s relationship to the mirror began in the dance studio, and extended to include a practice of self-portraiture, comprised of drawing, painting, photography and video.
He is a relentless seeker and questioner. Even before we began to delve into his background and training John Kelly was off discussing our times. “Catastrophe, at this point economic in nature, but it has been the AIDS crisis too, it forces all of us to reconfigure and artists are in the vanguard. I am looking to see how can this ground swell of frustration, as evinced by the Occupy movement, be built upon to have an effect on others. Many of us are asking this. A big part of being an artist is the capacity to sustain yourself while questioning.”
In order to do this John Kelly has been participating, as a self-described middle-aged artist, in a series of workshops offered by the New York Foundation for the Arts, aimed at fiscal wisdom. He mentions this as a segue to discuss the importance of artists knowing themselves as both a product and muse.
“Being an artist, I now see is a mission and one must have skills to ensure that you can sustain and have longevity. The American culture does not value art and artists the way the European culture does and so often artists are almost forced to travel to have their work fully appreciated. I know in my case that is true. And so I have become very peripatetic. I have been in a relationship with an actor, Brent Harris, for eight years, but so much of that time is spent apart.
“The hustle doesn’t stop for me. I am looking for a curator for my art work. I need to constantly connect the dots to who I am to explore performance and visual art.”
Performing in drag
For some folks, of a certain age, John Kelly is evocative of the time in the 1980s in the East Village, when great art could be found in bars like Limbo, and the Pyramid Club; Kelly certainly participated in that surge.
“I performed in drag, yes I was an artist at heart, but drag felt like the nastiest, most fucked up thing you could do and it felt powerful. But while I was doing drag I was also painting my self-portraits seeing myself as a possibility and as someone who was full of wonder. As I painted I was wondering and conjuring something into existence. It was a time of stretching and defining the parameters of your psyche and creating a template for my creative life.”
This template is rich and includes exhibitions at MOMA, The Kitchen, the American Academy in Rome, and Biagiotti Progetto Arte. Residencies at Yaddo; The MacDowell Colony; The Sundance Institute Theatre Program; and the P.S.1 National Studio Artist Program. Kelly’s has garnered 2 Bessie Awards; 2 Obie Awards; 2 NEA American Masterpiece Awards; a Guggenheim and an American Choreographer Award.
I want to continue because his breadth is daunting. As a singer he performed John Cage with the San Francisco Symphony and with Laurie Anderson, and Antony and The Johnsons. The range of performers and venues in his music is enough to gain him a vaunted place in the pantheon of high art.
Yes, Kelly is lauded and applauded and yet still an artist of his caliber and genre is awarded no security to produce work, just the electric verve of desire to create and be seen. If the lesson of Kelly’s work and life can enlighten us, it is to value, visit, and actively support artists wherever we find them. One would be hard pressed to discover any artist as multi-talented as John Kelly.
Writing includes ’JOHN KELLY’, a visual autobiography, published by the 2wice Arts Foundation in association with Aperture; essays for Movement Research Journal, Inside Arts, Metro New York, The Italian Journal, and Performing Arts Journal. He is currently working on a memoir.
Watch John Kelly as Joni Mitchell perform “Blue”:
Watch John Kelly perform a sequence from his performance piece, “”Pass The Blutwurst, Bitte”: