Young London Painters Interview – Jonathan Kelly
Originally published to accompany the group exhibition ‘Young London Painters’ at Arthill Gallery, presented by Admission Productions and curated by Hector Campbell (22nd - 24th November, 2018)
May 2019

Hector Campbell: You recently graduated from the Royal Academy Schools where you completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Fine Art. What was your experience of studying at such a prestigious institution? How did your work develop throughout that period of postgraduate study?

Jonathan Kelly: The RA Schools is a fantastic place to study and provided an incredible space to develop my thinking. When I started, I was interested in many different things and desired certain aesthetics, but largely I was making art about art; works with art historical references and quotation. Ultimately I held too much respect for it. So during my time there, a lot was stripped away, and I developed a more irreverent and balanced attitude. It was not the object – the painting or the sculpture – that I was interested in, but the idea of it and the artist’s approach.

It is dangerous to think about everything there is and everything there was, and I could feel myself becoming numbed and debilitated by that. So during my time at the RA, I think I learnt that I must do things for myself, make things in my own world. Context is everything, but also it is not necessarily something I should spend too much time thinking about. 

H.C: You’ve previously cited as inspiration Paleolithic cave paintings as well as traditional religious imagery and iconography, how do these areas of interest influence your work? Do you work with an awareness of the history of art in mind?

J.K: I believe it is key to study a really diverse set of imagery, to be aware of it. But when it comes to making, I think it is best to forget about everything else and create in a kind of willful ignorance. To come up with a creative solution for myself, and develop something which surprises me, is overall a more genuine experience. I guess that is why I am attracted to the primitivism of Paleolithic works. A Paleolithic Venus or a wall painting was not made to be art, but as necessary devices for understanding their world.

H.C: Idols, Mandalas, Emblems, Totems, Hieroglyphs, Runes could all be used to describe the geometric symbols that take centre stage in your work, and are often repeated across a series of canvas or body of works. How do you develop these imagined insignias? And when do you decide to retire certain symbols?

J.K: The motifs I make have to be figurative, totemic and appear a little like a diagram. There’s a power to the symmetry and uprightness of human form. And like a mandala I want my paintings to have a sense they are diagrams or visual meditative aides. The most important thing for me is that they do not look willed into existence. They have to appear like a pre-existing form, perhaps rediscovered, but a form which has just been there forever, looking as ancient as it does new. I’m not sure about whether I retire motifs or not. I may stop using them for a while, but I think they will probably be recycled or morphed into something else. 

H.C: Your paintings have been said to highlight a comparison before between the act of creating art and that of religious belief, due to their equalled irrationality. Would you agree with that? Do you intend your works to comment on religion?

J.K: Art and religion have been tied together for millennia, and only relatively recently have diverged. Making art is a strange thing to decide to do. In a similar way to belief, I guess you feel compelled to do it. There’s an internal logic, but it is largely intuitive. I do see a certain irrationality to both of them. But I think they’re both potentially useful as lenses for looking at the world, for analysing it, seeing how we fit into the bigger picture and making sense of our own lives.

H.C: The ‘Young London Painters’ exhibition aims to shine a light on emerging artists producing work in that medium. Apart from introducing collage into some of your recent works (with the addition of Poker Chips and Rudrakshas to the canvas), have you ever explored, or are interested in exploring, other mediums?

J.K: In the past, I have made some sculptural structures and have been involved in installations with performative aspects, but everything I have made is in some way concerned with painting.  I always think of my paintings as sculptural, whether that’s through the totemic forms, or through the paint surface, making it seem like the image has imparted onto it in some way, or ideally as if it has emerged from within canvas. I just appreciate the versatility of painting, how it can be anything, and how it can discuss anything.