If the artist is a fierce investigator of the self, safe arrival is never guaranteed. A case in point: performance and visual artist John Kelly, when learning to navigate a trapeze in order to embody Barbette, the androgynous high-wire acrobat of the 1920s, went so far as to break his neck. Mercifully, it healed.
Kelly walks into the lobby of Hartford's Wadsworth Atheneum, one of his favorite places, in a black leather jacket, black hoodie and black knit watchman's cap. Celebrated for his reflective, experimental and politically charged multimedia performances at The Kitchen, La MaMa, The Joyce Theater, Tate Modern and The Andy Warhol Museum, Kelly inhabits art star status with soft-spoken humility.
"My adult performing life basically overlays the [years of the] AIDS epidemic, and then the culture wars of the '90s, which is an amazing opportunity," Kelly says, before ordering a kale salad in the museum's café.
He's in Hartford for the opening of "Sideways into the Shadows" at Real Art Ways, a gallery space similar to Provincetown's AMP Gallery. The show features a suite of 14 by 11 inch memorial portraits by Kelly of individuals who succumbed to AIDS; many of them will be familiar to the Provincetown community and will be included in a group show at AMP with an opening on Friday. The drawings, done in graphite, pastel and pigment pencil on paper on aluminum panels, are titled for maximum acknowledgment and impact: the individual's name, age and year of death.
Kelly will also show handwritten journal selections, culled from over four decades, which trace the intertwined threads of his personal life and creative work. "The journal travels with me," Kelly once told The Village Voice. "I bring it to bed each night. It's a check-in with my psyche and the assorted business and creative imperatives, whether a redundant to-do list for the following day, or an uncontrolled spilling of insights and complaints."
This is the second time Kelly's visual art, which has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the New Museum and P.S. 1, plus galleries in Italy and elsewhere, will be seen in Provincetown - he had a solo show of self-portraits in 2012 at the Julie Heller Gallery. It is also the first time drawings from "Sideways into the Shadows" will be presented outside of New York and Hartford. Kelly plans to attend the AMP opening.
But he has been here in other ways. "Paved Paradise," his theatrical homage to Joni Mitchell, which he performed in a dress and blonde wig, playing a dulcimer she gave him as a gift (Mitchell adored the performance), came to Provincetown in the late 1990s. Kelly often embodies artists through movement, costume and vocalization, such as the painters Caravaggio and Egon Schiele, French dramatist Antonin Artaud and filmmaker Jean Cocteau.
He described his influential one night performance of "Life Without Grace" at New York's Pyramid Club in a recent special issue of T, The New York Times' style magazine: "My first loss was my partner, around the time Grace Kelly died in 1982," Kelly says. "I made a short performance called 'Life Without Grace,' a kind of eulogy. The title was an intentional lure - the work wasn't about Grace Kelly, but the painter William Schwedler. When he got sick, we were in a downward spiral for a year and a half. ... When you're at a memorial mourning the passing of a friend or lover and they're really young, where do you put that stuff? One of my responses was to just keep working. I chose a very mournful, elegiac, orchestral piece of music ... I went from area to area of the performance space, onstage and offstage. It was totally improvised, like a live prayer: 'Do you know that people are dying?' "
What: Opening of a group show, including John Kelly's "Excerpts from Sideways into the Shadows"
When: 6 pm Friday
Where: AMP Gallery, 432 Commercial St., Provincetown
More than three decades later Kelly "puts this stuff" into the memorial portraits of "Sideways into the Shadows," suffused with tenderness. Based on photographs sourced from the internet, Kelly limits the portraits to individuals he knew. "These people were either friends or lovers," he says. "They weren't strangers, even though," he almost whispers, "many are now very famous names."
The portraits keep the vitality of the subject alive - those of dancers capture moments of physical animation. Kelly trained as a ballet dancer with the School of the American Ballet for five years before going to New York's Parsons School of Design. He's done numerous dance theater pieces, some incorporating film. In the mid-1980s, living in Berlin, he wrote and performed a piece about a graffiti artist who leaps to freedom over the Berlin Wall. "Reagan had just gotten in, and it wasn't fashionable to talk about freedom," Kelly says.
He shares the group show at AMP with other multimedia artists, such as writer, photographer, film director and video artist Katrina del Mar; photographer Bobby Busnach; poet and photographer Bobby Miller; and writer and installation artist Michelle Handelman. Handelman, Miller and Kelly have, in fact, previously collaborated on various projects. Kelly electrified the crowd as Dagmar Onassis channeling Joni Mitchell for the inaugural Wigstock, the groundbreaking East Village drag festival that Miller has photo-documented over its lifetime. And recently, Kelly collaborated as a performer with Handelman on a multichannel video piece, which premiered at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
"Americans have a hard time with ambiguity," he says, glancing at his watch. "People have a hard time [categorizing] me, a creative polymath. They want you to do only one thing."
Kelly refuses to be fenced in. Even as Joni Mitchell, he has moved from "Paved Paradise" to a drag-free concert version, "so I'm not encumbered by playing a character," he says. Yet it's still performance art, and autobiography, homage and music in two octaves.
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