Michael John Kelly paints with the intensity of a man on a mission. But then it was just days into serving an LDS mission in Germany that his father died. Orphaned, he relocated with the rest of his siblings to Utah County, enrolling in college but not sure what he wanted to study. A professor at UVSC suggested he expand his already considerable drawing skills and try painting.
“Kathryn Downing taught me that the first impression doesn’t always tell the whole story,” Kelly relates. He found that painting could portray more than meets the eye—a psychological depth behind the pigment. Last year he completed his bachelor’s degree in art from BYU at 28, and the Women’s Art Center hosts his first non-student show this month.
He’s not sure how his style evolved, but it had something to do with hanging out with indie rock kids. Although he doesn’t like to be pigeonholed that way, three of his paintings are titled after songs: “There Are Times That Walk From You Like Some Passing Afternoon,” by Iron & Wine; “You Know Things Are So Much Sadder When They Don’t Matter” (pictured above) by Mohave 3; and “Ten Years To the Minute, No Longer In It,” by the Hot Snakes. “I don’t title paintings themselves, but the space I was in when I painted them,” he reveals. You can see the intimations of deep catharsis occurring.
Encouraged by instructors to take a stab at abstraction, he has created works that are candidly emotional—paint dripping down the canvas—but also refined, displaying a level of confidence rarely seen in an emerging artist. His eye has absorbed the work of late-20th-century post-expressionist masters like Francis Bacon and Robert Motherwell. “These pieces express a lot of things I’m not even aware of,” he contends. “If it just contained one element, intellect or emotion, I wouldn’t like it as much; it’s the balance I appreciate.”
Combine, showing in the ‘small gallery’ at the front half of the exhibit space, is a group of three friends of Kelly’s from BYU: Ruel Brown, Chris Coy and Gian Pierotti. “We all had boxes full of old magazines, and there wasn’t much to do in Utah County,” Kelly explains, “so we’d have collage parties.”
Their work is more design-oriented, explains Brown. “We had all seen these beautiful images that were among ’60s pop icons, so we wanted to create some kind of reactionary response to them.” Their works, mounted on index-card-size blocks of wood, maintain a balance between the aesthetic slickness of the source images and what Brown describes as “taken out of context, how corny and manipulative some of them are.”
The nonprofit Women’s Art Center has been open since August, and has been filled to capacity every stroll since opening, but this is its first all-male show. Executive Director Teresa Flowers—who is being honored this year in Utah Business magazine’s “30 Women to Watch”—saw Kelly’s work in a friend’s shop and was blown away. “I was drawn by his textures, the way he paints over earlier paintings,” she said. Although she plans to exhibit more male artists, the Center’s classes remain for women only. “People are really longing for something fresh,” she believes.
Kelly concurs. “I like the way my paintings feel in here, the organic look of the walls.” Something in the air on the Pierpont block exudes creativity; you can almost breathe it in like the smell of fresh-brewed coffee. “There is a history in this room beyond our use,” he maintains. “Like the way I apply paint implies a history.”
MICHAEL JOHN KELLY & COMBINE
Women’s Art Center
456 Pierpont Ave.
through March 11