We had a chance to speak with Kelsey Shwetz, a Canadian born artist who is currently a second year MFA student at Columbia University in New York City. We were struck by the deep psychological subtext that informs her art which gives it an otherworldliness and a window into the subconscious. Her work has been shown and collected internationally and she has been the recipient of multiple residencies and fellowships. Her latest exhibitions have been at the Hollis Taggert Gallery in Westport, Connecticut and Casa Equis in Mexico City.
Interview by Robert Landis and Fredda Gordon. Edited by Fredda Gordon. Photos courtesy of Kelsey Shwetz and Fredda Gordon.
Kelsey Shwetz: It’s going good. We have our first year show up [at Columbia University] so that feels like a specific marker of the end of the year. It feels great to see everyone’s work up in one space.
RL: Are you aware of the work your fellow students are making?
KS: I have a sense of what others are doing. Other painters. Something interesting that I feel after this show that I didn’t feel going in… I had always made really large works before coming to school and I thought ‘schools now a time to work smaller, work through a bunch of ideas.’ The works I have in this show are 36 by 46, so they’re not small, but they’re not giant 6 foot paintings anymore. A few of my painter classmates have been making these really big works for the show ’cause conversely they were like “I have a studio now, I can make big works.” So, their work is taking up all this space on the wall and I’m thinking ‘I’m going to do that next year!’ And I got these massive stretcher bars that are 9 feet tall.
RL: I read that you’re from Manitoba.
KS: Yeah it’s prairie Canada, right above North Dakota.
RL: What happened in your life that you said, “Oh this is fine art, this is what I want to do” ?
KS: The Winnipeg art gallery was a place that I had always gone to. There’s a few good works in the collection there. I had always done art as a child. I think a lot of children do this, but I had a really great experience in the art program in high school. We were allowed to paint with oil paints but [the teacher] would sneak in his own private oil paints and he would let us use all of his old brushes. He was so encouraging, he changed the way I thought about art. He gave us this year long assignment. We had to make a sculpture, but this sculpture had to be functional. I think I made a teapot. The sculpture had to correspond with a specific geometric shape. He gave me a triangle, so all of the shapes of the sculpture had to be triangular, and then we fired it and then painted on top of it. This was a whole year. At the end of the year he had us line up and we were presenting these sculptures and he made us walk past the window, drop our sculpture out of the window and then make something new out of the shards of it. It was the first time I thought about making something and then disassembling it, or it not just being a straight shot of a precious thing that I’m making.
RL: It was creative for your teacher to do that it.
KS: It was also horrifying. Some of the students were crying. They were spending all year on it, so proud of it …
RL: Was there any artist or experience back then that lit a light bulb in your consciousness about art?
KS: I remember the first time I had backpacked through Europe seeing works of the impressionists in person. Seeing a particular Van Gogh painting, such a cliché, but understanding the analogy of his hand making this stroke and then me seeing it. You’re seeing the trace this person has made and collapsing all this time in space that’s in between you and the person who made it. That was something that solidified the desire to make paintings.
KS: I had that realization when I was reading a lot of contemporary novels by young women and it was their first novel. That was when I understood a difference of experience of moving through the world. I mentioned those artists as I was thinking about the tradition of botanical painting and that painting a botanical still life was safe for them to do. It wouldn’t corrupt them as painting a nude model would. I was a figurative painter before and I thought a lot about the role of the gaze, or the role of the relationship between the model and the sitter in a historical context. I would only paint people who I was really close with like roommates, friends, people I was dating, or other artists in the same building, because I had this … you know Alice Neal and Sylvia Sleigh did this too, this close proximity feel to their subject versus like Matisse [where] there’s a great distance between the subject and the painter. I love Matisse.
RL: Then you studied psychology.
KS: Yeah, that was my undergrad degree. I was absolutely sure I would be a clinical psychologist. I was excited about the experimental work done in the fifties and sixties in America. Then I had a moment where I realized that pursuing this academically would mean I would spend all this time in a lab crunching data and my ideal of being a psychologist would not match reality. Conversely, I realized that being an artist would be the exact thing I would want to do.
RL: Were you a behaviorist or Freudian oriented psychologist?
KS: I was a social behaviorist.
RL: I see the progression in your work from portraits to florals to architectural themes with a darker aspect to the paintings. Was it conscious? How did that evolve?
KS: I’ve always thought a lot about nature and then I started to interrogate that. In this world, what is natural nature? And what is this weird, artificial nature that we create as people? I do a lot of research in botanical gardens and conservatories where it’s natural, you feel the air in there, it’s a different atmosphere but it’s really constructed, right? It’s not how things would grow normally or things that wouldn’t grow together. Then I started thinking about how we genetically modify things and how fruits over the centuries looked completely different. Bananas are completely different than they were before. It’s wild, they had these giant seeds in them and there was barely any flesh. That led me to thinking about kitsch. My grandmother always had like a bowl of plastic fruit on the table. We have to have elements of nature in our homes but not deal with the other stuff. I also started thinking about the state of the environment, the climate crisis we’re in, and imagining a world once we’re not in it anymore and all of the structures that we built are still there.
KS: I don’t have any figures pictured in the paintings, but I like to make paintings where it’s obvious there were humans here not too long ago. They built these things, they arranged the space, they planted these things. Maybe they just left, maybe they’re coming back. In that way I hope that the figure in the paintings is the viewer.
RL: One of the paintings that I’m familiar with is a staircase and there’s a bedroom with an unmade bed.
KS: You can feel the presence of the person that was laying in this bed, that would be moving in this space, but they’re not there. Or, maybe the person is you and you’re about to enter this room. I’m interested in how we can indicate the presence of a person without painting a body.
RL: At what point did you realize you had to be in New York? What was your experience like when you first arrived?
KS: I was living in Montreal. I had a wonderful group of friends who were all kinds of artists but I started to feel a little bit of an insular feeling. I wanted to be in a place where I would be meeting people from many different places. I had thought about going to grad school and decided to wait a bit. Then when I got to New York it was this wonderful culture shock. Canada and the US are quite similar in many ways but culturally it was disorienting. I was apologizing a lot when people bumped into me [chuckle]. It was overwhelming and wonderful and for better or for worse I feel like New York is home now. You’re surrounded by so many interesting people who are at the top of their field. I feel so lucky just to go to the museums here and see the collections.
RL: What do you get out of the museums? What are your thoughts on the lack of contemporary work in museums?
KS: I go to contemporary galleries on the Lower East Side and in Chelsea way more than I go to the museums. I see the work of my contemporaries much more than any other work, but I love going to the MET, for example, because you’ll be stopped in front of work that you’ve never seen there, I don’t know how you could miss it, it’s almost like a new painting there, and you realize that this painting affects you 200 years later, 500 years later and that maybe isn’t going to be the case for every piece of contemporary art you see now. It’s important to have an intimate understanding of what’s happening now, support your peers and see the work that’s being made but also there’s some works in museums that are as relevant as anything else. They’ve been made in a completely different time and a completely different place and that is incredible and important as an artist to understand and be faithful to.
RL: Have you seen any shows recently that impressed you?
KS: I saw a group show at the Flag Art Foundation that was about intimacy. There was lots of figurative works. I thought there were quite a lot of works that were really fantastic. I saw some portraits by TM Davy in another smaller group show and his portraits are absolutely incredible.
RL: Museums have a lot of work by men and the few women from the canon of art history but now there are many women making great work and getting exposure. Can you talk about the woman’s role in contemporary art and how it’s changed?
KS: We’re in such an exciting time right now. All of these people and voices who weren’t necessarily represented before are now making these incredible works, or given the space and the stage to [do that]. We’re taking their interpretations and experiences of the world seriously. It broadens everything, makes everything more rich and more nuanced. All of the ways that we view art in the last 10 years changes also. As much as social media is damaging, it’s also this democratic system where you can see work from all of these people who may not have big gallery representation and maybe they never would share their work with anyone, or would only be able to share it with their small community. There’s this potential for outreach of ideas that is new. With that comes a richness of voices that wasn’t represented before.
RL: It’s not like women suddenly became more creative.
Fredda Gordon: How many women did we not see who were incredible artists?
KS: Exactly, and then the discovery of these seminal women artists just reinforces the notion that they were here. Agnes Pelton is someone that comes to mind. And Gertrude Abercrombie is another wonderful painter, her paintings are so strange and so weird. Leonora Carrington comes to mind… all these wonderful, influential women were making paintings at the beginning of the 20th century. That really changed the forces of painting and now we’re just realizing how much influence they had and the contribution they made to their field.
RL: There’s also more freedom now in how women can paint.
KS: Definitely. In the seventies a lot of free work began happening. Now nothing is forbidden. Although with that, it’s important as an artist to be really thoughtful about what subject matter is yours to paint.
KS: There’s a buffer period. I’ll see something or have an idea and then it percolates. I think, ‘What does it mean? Why was I so interested in that?’ Sometimes I’ll come back to photos that I’ve taken like six months ago and realize, ‘Oh! This is why I was so interested in glass fruits.’ Because I’ve thinking about green houses and preservation and how we want ripe, juicy things around us all the time as humans. We don’t want to deal with decay. ‘Oh, that’s why I have all these images on my phone or computer of glass bowls of fruit.’
RL: How did the pandemic affect your art?
KS: I realized that a lot of the work I made was about windows, or…
RL: Inside looking out?
KS: It really was! And it didn’t dawn on me that’s what I was doing until I saw all the paintings together and I realized, ‘These are all windows. You’re being separated from the world by some thing, like a sheet of plastic, or a pane of glass. You’re understanding what’s going on outside but there’s this thing that prevents you from feeling like you’re part of it.’ That’s how I felt and a lot of us probably felt.
RL: I imagine different professors are going to approach helping you differently but in your experience do they say, “This is crap,” or are they encouraging?
KS: Luckily no one said, “Oh, this is just rubbish.” I got a lot of helpful criticism at the beginning, like, “These paintings are really dense, don’t try to put seven ideas into one painting, make seven paintings.” That’s the most helpful piece of advice that I would get often.
I’m a slow painter. My paintings take a lot of time to make but I started to do something that I have never done before. I’ll have like four canvases at the same time that I’m working on. [I would think], ‘OK, I’m making this painting… Oh, maybe this should change, let me paint over it,” and I realized I was making four paintings in one canvas and on top of that, losing all of the other stuff. Now if I’m working on a painting and I say, ‘What if this part was different?’ I’ll just do that on the next canvas right beside it. I’ll have have my “b” sides and sometimes those paintings are better than the original one.
RL: Do you listen to music when you paint?
KS: I listen to music. I’ve been listening to this playlist of like music from the 2000s, a little bit of nostalgia. I have some albums I consistently put on when I feel like I’m stuck. Angel Olsen is an artist that I love so much. Sometimes I’ll listen to ambient, instrumental music when I’m tired of listening to words.
RL: What do you have planned for the future?
KS: I am starting this collaborative project with writers. I wrote a fable and it’s my first foray into writing. It’s a fable in five parts. Each writer is assigned to a part of the fable and then I’m making paintings of each part, which I’m going to show the writers. They’re going to respond to that painting and either continue the fable or change it in a different direction. Then I’m going to read all their responses and based on those make five more paintings. I have been thinking about how it would best be shown. I would love for it to be a painting, text, another painting. I don’t know if it’s going to be best for the text to be printed out, or maybe as a sound being read by the person. I would welcome the input of the writers. How do they envision their response. At this stage I think I should just focus on the paintings.
RL: One more question, is your work more about the conscious world or the unconscious world?
KS: Oh, I love that! I feel like my work is about the subconscious experience of the conscious world. It’s familiar, you can like name the things in my paintings like this is a fan, this is a window, this is a plant… but like the way that it’s put together, or experienced, I think is closer to the way that inside, subconsciously, we think of the world or experience it. It’s not clear.