John Woodrow Kelley (b. 1952) paints with the gods. While most artists would be happy to welcome just the muses, he courts some of the most powerful, adored and even feared characters in Greek mythology.
They gladly join him in his Brooklyn studio, a high-ceilinged former parlor in an Italianate brownstone. Venus, the goddess of love and her pal Mercury, the messenger god, often spend time together gossiping about the other gods and which among them might be acting inappropriately with mere mortals. Orpheus prefers to stand and sing, lyre in hand, while Bacchus assesses some newly picked bunches of grapes to make into sweet wine. Oh, and there is Persephone gazing longingly out the window to the backyard of Kelley’s house, where every year she brings spring and then retreats to the Underworld, leaving autumn behind in her aftermath. Other guests in Kelley’s bright studio space and throughout the warren of small rooms situated on two levels include Hercules, the strongest of all mortals, Meleager, a veteran of the quest for the Golden Fleece undertaken by Jason and the Argonauts, and Ulysses, happy to be home from his epic journey and looking none the worse for his travails.
While Kelley is very much a man of our time, as dashingly handsome and imposing (6 feet, 3 inches), in fact, as many of the far-larger-than-life figures he paints, he remains rooted in the ancient past when it comes to his art. He writes in his newly published monograph, Greek Mythology Now: “The Greek myths embody everything that is timeless about the human experience.... They have been a successful vehicle for man’s pursuit of self-knowledge for countless generations, which is the reason I have chosen to make yet another interpretation of them through my paintings.”(Knoxville: Jim Wells Productions, 2014)
And while pointing to a selection of his large-scale canvases (some of which measure up to six and a half feet wide by six feet high) of beautiful males and females, everyone from Prometheus and Diana, to Eros and the Sphinx, he notes: “They’re the original superheroes. While the Greek gods exhibited all the characteristics of humans—jealousy, anger, lust, envy—their powers and their weaknesses make everyone else, we mortals, that is, feel better about our own imperfections.”While Kelley insists that his figures have their imperfections—a broken nose in profile, perhaps—a viewer is hard pressed to find any physical flaw. His gods and goddesses are lovely, youthful, desirable. “I have to admit, I’m all about beauty,”says Kelley, “and everyone responds to beauty. I very definitely feel that the Greek gods and goddesses should be depicted in a particular way, with unapologetic beauty.”
That notion may seem obvious to people who love figurative, narrative art, but when Kelley was studying art and architecture, successively at the University of Tennessee, New York’s Pratt Institute, the Art Students League and the New York Academy of Art, it was not always a given that such sentiments would be embraced by the gods and goddesses heading his departments. He was fortunate, he says, to have had Ted Seth Jacobs as his principal teacher at the League, a man whom Kelley describes as “teaching the precepts of the academic tradition, with its emphasis on accurate drawing and the study of anatomy. He was the most important influence in my life as an artist.”And when Kelley was at Pratt (where he earned a degree in architecture), he took a rendering class with Al Lorenz, who often brought in a live model for his students to draw. “Like most illustrators, Al was looked down upon by the art crowd, but he understood the importance of drawing the live figure. You could hear the derision of some students in the class, who thought it was ridiculous to have to draw an actual person, but there was also a small group of us who were excited by this opportunity and knew what it represented.”The human figure, painted in a beautiful and realistic manner, and featured in works that told stories about morality, were concepts as remote in the 1970s as the top of Mount Olympus or the far shore of the river Styx. “That was another way I rebelled as an artist,”says Kelley, “to show beauty on a canvas.”
Diana to the Rescue
Kelley says that one of his favorite figures in Greek mythology is Diana, goddess of the hunt and protector of children and animals. He adores her not only because he regards her as the original strong woman, a kind of feminist role model who defied stereotypes and remained independent, but also because she reflects his own early career as an artist. “Call her the Katharine Hepburn of her time. She not only has a great personality, but is also a great athlete,”Kelley explains.
“I was told in no uncertain terms when I was in school learning to paint and beginning to show works to gallery owners that I was going about it all wrong,”he recalls. “‘You cannot do that now,’I was told. Because I was in school at the tail end of Abstract Expressionism, you didn’t see anything like I was doing in any art gallery. People would get actually angry at me because they thought I was bucking the system. And now there is, of course, a strong, vital interest in the figure again. In retrospect, I realize that I was not the only ‘nut case’working in isolation, that there were others, notably artists like John Currin, who works with the human figure. It makes sense that I would be so taken early on with the figure and character of the goddess Diana, who was always an original, independent thinker.”
Kelley’s book, which he self-published after securing sponsorship from the Knoxville (Tennessee) Museum of Art and his hometown, Nashville’s Parthenon museum, and several private collectors, reveals exactly what he is all about as a painter. “What I love about John’s works is that they’re all so accessible,”says Susan Shockley, curator of the Parthenon, who mounted a highly popular show of some twenty pieces in 2004. “I was worried,”Shockley notes, “about showing so much nudity, since I too often hear people coming into the museum saying, ‘I don’t want to see any naked figures,’ignoring the fact that the very frieze of our Parthenon building shows sculpted nude figures, in keeping with the real structure in Athens. But I didn’t hear a single complaint from a single visitor who saw the works by John. The show was spectacular, and people were entranced.”Two of Kelley’s profile views, in fact, were sold during the run of the exhibition. “His paintings teach people that art does not have to be intimidating,”adds Shockley. “To be blunt, the lives of the Greek figures are like soap operas—you never know what’s going to happen and who is going to be subject to the whims of the gods and goddesses.”
Kelley traces his early interest in classicism and Greek mythology in particular to a childhood visit to this same Parthenon, which exactly replicates in scale and manner the ancient edifice in Athens. Within the building is a noteworthy collection of sixty-three American paintings that date from 1765 to 1923. Kelley has dedicated his book to his late parents, citing that visit to Nashville as “changing my life forever.”In referencing mythical figures and his obsession with capturing them on canvas and telling their stories, Kelley says: “It all comes from a belief in something larger than ourselves. There’s so much poetry and dramatic relationships in their histories, which is all terribly attractive to me.”
Gods and Goddesses among us
Kelley looks hard and carefully for his models, not on the slopes of Mount Olympus, but rather among his circle of friends, many of whom live in his adopted Brooklyn. “I’ll often sketch from life, of course, but I also work from the black-and-white photographs I take of my models. Then I make up the colors, with a very conscious nod to an academic palette,”he says. “Some artists think it’s terrible that I work with photographs. But I love working with photography—it makes me a true contemporary artist! The photographs allow me to get a model to give me an hour, instead of asking them for sixty hours.”
Kelley tells the stories of the ancient Greek figures through decidedly present-day people. What is it about these faces and bodies that indicate to the viewer they are people of today, not of antiquity? “You can tell by the way they look,”says Shockley, “even though they are wearing ancient clothing; yet there’s no other real indication they are modern. Maybe it’s just because of their hair cuts,”she says in as much a statement as a question. “The contrast between a contemporary-looking person situated in an ancient story creates a tension that I think reflects the very complexity of our modern world,”says Kelley, who adds that even the musculature of a present-day person differs from that of an ancient one, perhaps another clue that these figures are people of today. “I have some diehard classicist friends who think my figures should be even more idealized, more perfect, in the way that [Jacques-Louis] David or Ingres would have done. I look more to artists like Velázquez or Caravaggio, who were criticized for using common people, peasants, in their works. The more surprising and the least expected become the most attractive.”
Just as facial profiles and taut bodily flanks are keenly observed and depicted by Kelley, perhaps the other notable feature of his work is the drapery. The folds of strategically positioned togas, capes, bedding and towels are rendered with an uncanny sense of detail and nuance. The shadowing of recessed creases and the play of sun and moonlight on the materials are done with god-like care. “It’s harder to paint the surface of drapery than of human flesh,”says Kelley. “The depicting of drapery as I try to do it goes back to ancient Roman wall paintings. The detailed drapery signals to the viewer that this is not reality I’m painting, that there is an element of the supernatural. It is a beautiful complement to the human form.”
Most of Kelley’s works are large-scale narratives or sixteen-inch-square profile portraits of Greek male and female figures. He has recently also been executing paintings of ancient busts. These represent a Hellenistic tradition of capturing the psychological essence of the sitter. Kelley comes upon these marble and stone busts of such figures as Hercules, Zeus, Apollo and the allegory of Rome in museums, often at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He photographs the sculptures and then paints them on canvases that usually measure 24-by-20 inches. Kelley is careful to record the shadows that the busts cast against walls, the patina and grit of age that coat their surfaces, the minute fissures and chips that have occurred over the millennia. “I just felt this urge to paint an homage to the ancient art that has embraced me,”he says. “It’s a show of gratitude and respect. I would have been a very happy archaeologist.”
In many ways, these bust portraits reflect another side of Kelley—his work as a commissioned portraitist, painting sitters in their homes, astride horses, at the piano. He has clients all over the world—from Knoxville to London—but he also receives commissions for Greek subjects. “One of my favorite clients, Dr. Gary Hollingsworth, lives in Houston, and is also a classical scholar. He commissioned me to paint Achilles and Hector. He wanted some scene from the Trojan War, and while I was touring a small museum of antiquities in Venice, I came upon a statue of a fallen soldier assuming the very pose Achilles took in battle. I remember making a mental note and doing a quick thumbnail sketch on the spot—and that is what I used for Dr. Hollingsworth’s painting. I am delighted when I get a commission—it eliminates that speculative quality that can haunt an artist!”
In yet another nod to his status as a decidedly contemporary artist, Kelley does not yet have gallery representation—another reason for publishing his book as a kind of calling card. His apartment/studio assumes another role as a kind of museum, where every canvas hanging on the walls or leaning against the furniture is for sale. (Kelley’s works range in price from $3,000 to more than $12,000.) He is happy even to sell works for which he feels a particularly strong attachment, such as those depicting Mercury, whom Kelley admires “for his blithe spirit and, in his role as messenger between the real world and the underworld, for being the enabler of a lot of good stories.”He adds: “I’m troubled by painters who don’t wish to sell and share with someone else certain works of theirs because they feel too attached to them. It’s what artists are supposed to do, to create, yes, for themselves, but also for others. An artist needs to make room for more work—actual room and room inside himself.”
Kelley is confident that he will never tire of his subject matter. Although he has painted numerous versions of Narcissus, the doomed youth whose own vanity proved fatal, the artist is planning yet another version in which the spurned nymph, Echo, will be included. Echo persuaded Venus to put a curse on Narcissus for not loving her, but when he died, transfixed by his own reflection in a pool, Echo pined away until her voice became a mere echo. “Although I’ve not yet started it beyond what I’m seeing in my mind, I think my version of this narrative will be the first that has her reflection visible in the same pool,”says Kelley. “I want my painting of her, somehow, to ask, ‘Why does love go wrong?’”
That is certainly a big topic to address on canvas and one suited only, perhaps, to the arena of mythology. But Kelley is among the few painters working now who are able to be god-like in their depiction of deities. We can gaze at his paintings for as long as we wish and never fall into that pond. As an artist of today, Kelley is as heroic as the ancient figures he paints.
All photos: Jim Wells