Interview with Andy Kehoe for “PRISMATIC”

Thinkspace is proud to present PRISMATIC from Pittsburg-based artist Andy Kehoe. PRISMATIC is a body of work that speaks to both the freedom and fear of the unknown. Through the prisms of fantasy and imagination, Kehoe considers the variegated nature of mixed perceptions that shape our endless versions of experience. In our interview with Kehoe, we discuss his evolving creative process and technique as he approaches each new piece; in addition to dreams and desire for collaboration.

Kehoe’s work is best experienced in person.
Make sure to come into the gallery during PRISMATIC‘s showing from now through October 21st.

SH: What is the inspiration behind PRISMATIC? Are you exploring a specific theme or narrative?
AK: Throughout my career, my goal has been to create a sense of wonder, mystery, and grandeur. I feel my recent work has really started to tap into those facets of emotion so with PRISMATIC, my goal was to take those themes and emotions to another level visually and conceptually.

On the surface, PRISMATIC applies an expanding color palette and use of a greater range of color than in previous work. I also used some iridescent and pearlescent paints that give the paintings a physical shimmering and glow when seen in person. Visually, I wanted this show to be bold and vibrant. Beyond the surface, I wanted the pieces to expose the hidden layers of reality that surround us.

Until the discovery of the spectrum of light using prisms, humans accepted the idea of light being white and colorlessness. It was initially accepted that the prism colored light, when in fact it separates it and reveals the entire color spectrum. This spectrum extends beyond what we can observe with the naked eye and even what we label as “color.” This makes me wonder what other layers exist around us and are neglected due to our limited understanding. What other mysteries can we not yet see?

There are very few natural things that occur in a singular or even dual reality. There is no black and white, but in fact, a multitude of gray or “in-between.” For example, there is no pure emotion, motive, or perspective. Almost everything in existence is beautifully and sometimes maddeningly layered. I have been working with layers for many years, even before the use of resin, and my work continues to progress technically and conceptually. While I don’t have the ability to explain the mysteries of the universe in a practical or scientific sense, I do possess imagination. I see imagination as a gift to help explain the mysteries of reality and expand beyond what is known. I’ve always been interested in the concept of a multiverse but my work looks at this idea through the prism of fantasy and imagination. The world I create is layers of imagined universes and though those universes are more apparent, they are no less mysterious.

Technically, I wanted to put more focus on painting for this show. I have learned a lot working with resin over the last few years but mostly I have learned I prefer working with resin primarily as a medium itself. I wanted to refocus the work to the techniques and textures I can create and not just the three-dimensional elements of resin. By applying pigments and wet paint in the uncured resin, I am able to create an organic chaos I could not bring out just working with oils. That kind of uncontrollable randomness is very hard to consciously create because no matter what, my mere human mind always tries to create order. It brings an intriguing juxtaposition when combined with the very calculated and ordered parts of my work. For this show, I made the decision to use fewer layers of resin so I could spend more time painting within each layer. This allowed me to bring more detail, attention, and care to each individual layer. It also allowed me to work larger due to the overall weight of the resin. My early resin pieces were very heavy and cumbersome. As my imagination and ideas continue to grow, the larger format allows the universes to breathe and exist. That being said, the thin resin sill adds an amazing amount of depth but I’d be wary to call it three-dimensional.

SH: Nature is a strong element in your work, have any of your pieces been inspired by a specific place?
AK: I wouldn’t say there’s any specific place. A lot of influence definitely comes from growing up in western Pennsylvania and having access to a big forest in our backyard. My brother, Ben, and I used to run around those woods like wild animals. Exploring the mystery of the woods as a kid certainly stuck with me. In 2010, I moved back to Pittsburgh from Portland. The move home was a cross-country tour of amazing national parks like Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Devils Tour, and the Badlands. I was blown away by the grandeur of it all and those sights certainly left a lasting impression.

SH: As your work tends to address the elements of the “unknown,” what unknown is most daunting to you?
AK: I don’t see the unknown as daunting. The unknown is, of course, very terrifying by nature, but it’s also equally inspirational and wondrous. The cosmos has an incomprehensible scope and magnitude that generates both fear and awe. That emotional duality will always inspire me and spark my imagination. I definitely try to evoke that feeling through my own work and it’s a major reason that I was drawn to adding cosmic elements to my paintings. (Aside from it being really fun to paint!)

SH: What is your creative process? Can you walk us through a day in the studio?
AK: When I’m working on a show, I usually wake up, make some decaf coffee (regular coffee betrayed me and now makes me feel like death), give the dog and cats some treats, cook some eggs, and check up on emails and other mundane administrative things. Then I’ll go up to the studio and formulate some sort of game plan for the day. Because I work on several pieces at once, and each of those pieces consists of a few layers of resin, every day is a singular adventure.

A normal day can consist of working out concepts with writing and sketching, cutting masks for airbrush, applying clear base acrylic layers to new resin layers, experimenting with some new materials, taking pieces down to the basement for airbrushing, and of course, some actual oil painting. Some layers take a while to paint and sometimes I spend a whole day on one piece, but I usually end up working on a few different pieces in a single day. If there are any pieces that are ready for a new layer of resin, I’ll usually do this towards the end of my workday. I close out my night by putting on headphones and washing all the brushes I used throughout the day. That task can be pretty daunting and it’s tempting to skip, but I love waking up the next day with a fresh set of brushes to work with.

SH: We know you continue to challenge yourself as an artist with each body of work, but was there a specific piece in this exhibition you feel unexpectedly challenged you or took you on an unexpected journey?
AK: The most challenging piece for this show was Worlds Apart. I wanted to somehow create two different worlds existing at once, on different layers, and have them blend into each other. Somehow. Logistically, it took a ton planning and brainstorming. This was done mostly by staring at the piece for hours and wondering how the hell I was going to pull it off. I spent a lot time tinkering and improvising and, by the end, many of the initial conceptual elements were shifted and readjusted. It was also hard to know how things would come together until I painted the very last layer. There were some very tense and uncertain times with that piece, but I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out.

SH: In past interviews, you’ve shared that you have very vivid dreams. Do you have recurring dreams or locations? What is your earliest dream memory?
AK: Yes. My dreams are very epic. Haha. I have all types of dreams. Sometimes I have action packed dreams full of guns, explosions, and impossible odds of capturing a bad guy or saving the world. I also have dreams that could be considered nightmares, usually consisting of an ominous and unseen threat closing down on me, and those around me. Those dreams are pretty frightening but also very intriguing and exciting.

Mostly I find myself wandering around strange, alluring landscapes. I’ve seen so many amazing and indescribable places in my dreams and I can only remember fleeting glimpses of them. They’re impossible to verbalize and properly explain, but I do attempt to evoke the feelings these places give me. Some of these places I do revisit in dreams, and one specific landscape is what inspired the piece Reoccurring Shores. In my dream, I find myself facing a vast, quiet ocean from a snow-covered, rocky shoreline. I am always there at the very end of sunset or the very beginning of sunrise. I am not sure where this place exists but it feels like the very bottom of the world, as far as you can be from civilization. The salty ocean air is so crisp, cold, and clean and the only sound is the gentle lapping of small waves on the shore. It’s an overlap of profound tranquility and a frightening feeling of utter isolation. I feel so small and so wonderfully insignificant in this place and I reminisce of it often in my waking hours. I have wanted to capture this image for a long time and this painting feels very close but to truly capture it, I think the painting would have to been around 20 feet while keeping the character the same size. One day.

SH: How have you grown as an artist in the last 5 years and how do you hope to grow in the following 5?
AK: There has definitely been a learning curve with the resin. I feel like I’ve figured out so much by using it over the last 5 years. Being more comfortable with the resin has allowed me to focus more on the actual art and less on the process itself. This has been really energizing for me. PRISMATIC is more ambitious because it was less about experimentation with resin alone but the combination of all of my skills and tools I have learned and practiced. I am also more comfortable painting on resin and it feels great to bring back those techniques. Truly mixing my old ways with the new and continuing to learn so much with every piece I make. I hope to continue using those lessons and keep pushing my work into new territories. On top of the technical growth, I’ve also grown as a human being, and continue to expand my mental horizons. That definitely has a profound impact on the direction of my artwork.

I really want to do more collaborative work in the future. Working from home as an independent artist can get pretty isolating. I know there is no way I could work on a project and paint everything manually so I plan to take some digital painting classes. I’ve always wanted to be good at digital painting and I’ve tried to figure it out on my own, but I’m so damn used to the feel of brushes and mixing paint on a palette. I know I can persevere; I’ll just have to get some expert education. Plus I have some other personal projects that I want to spend some time on, and being able to do digital conceptual art would be very handy.

SH: What about another artists’ work excites or fascinates you? Who do you think everyone should look up?
AK: I love a mix of good craftsmanship with art that is still mysterious and imaginative. If it’s well made and makes me think, “What the hell is going on in this person’s mind?” I’ll likely be attracted to it. Having a unique visual style goes a long way, but having a distinct and defining voice is more important to me. Essentially, artwork that’s comfortable in its own skin. Some specific artists that come to mind are Aron Weisenfeld, Esao Andrews, Femke Hiemstra, AJ Fosik, and Martin Wittfooth. There are plenty more, but it would take way too long to list them.

SH: What was playing in the background during the creation of this body of work? Does what you listen to inform the mood of the pieces or are they separate?
AK: It’s a constant mix of music, podcasts, and audiobooks. I really like working to music in headphones. It puts me in the zone and I become immersed in the work. I actually picked up some nice wireless headphones for this show because my corded headphones kept getting caught on things in my studio, my drafting table chair being the main culprit. Nothing tears you out of a good creative session (or inspires a quick, hot rage) like having headphones suddenly ripped off your head. In the beginning concept stage, I zone out to ambient, non-vocal music. Later on, I move on to whatever albums fit my current mood. Music can definitely add to the mood of a piece I’m working on, and sometimes it’s just something to fall into and be creatively motivated by.

Audiobooks are a huge part of my listening regimen. I usually listen to 15-20 audiobooks per show. I mostly listen to fantasy books and series with a sprinkling of non-fiction and general fiction. The fantasy genre consists of a lot of descriptive world building, which inspires my imagination and puts me in a good creative mood. It also helps me push through more tedious parts of paintings, such as endless straight hours of trees and grass painting.

SH: Who would you want to collaborate with, dead or alive? The person can be in any area of the arts; film, dance, music etc.
AK: My ultimate dream is to animate a story of my own creation, and I’ve been writing my own story, on and off, over the last few years. That being said, the ability to work with some of my current favorite authors like Brandon Sanderson, Scott Lynch, or Patrick Rothfuss would be amazingly insightful. I’d also love to collaborate with J.K. Rowling so she could inject magic and humanity into it, and could help me name my characters. She has the best names. If I could work on a personal animation project, it would more likely be influenced by filmmaking than animation, so I’d like to pick the brains of my favorite auteurs like P.T. Anderson, Wong Kar Wai, Guillermo del Toro, Stanley Kubrick, Alfonso Cuaron, and Wes Anderson. Terrence Malick can also throw some philosophical tidbits my way and make me contemplate the war of man and nature.

As for painters, I don’t think I’d want to collaborate as much as be a fly on the wall and observe some masters like Bosch, Bruegel, Goya, or Caspar David Friedrich. To see their processes and techniques from conception to completion would be astoundingly fascinating and enlightening.

SH: When not in the studio, what would an ideal day look like?
AK: My studio is at home, so sometimes it feels impossible to get away from work. For that reason, I try my best to take Sunday as a day of guilt-free slacking. Those days usually consist of hanging with my wife and the animals, playing some video games or board games, watching some good TV or a movie, and ignoring email at all costs.

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