ARTIST Kelly Boehmer’s work is bright and colorful, lapsing into eerie and grotesque at times.
She’s a Foundations professor at SCAD, where she integrates her background in performance art and painting into her teaching.
We spoke with Boehmer last week.
1. You’re a multidisciplinary artist and got your start painting. How did you begin the work you do now?
It was just this bad struggle. It’s what I love—if I go into a museum, I go straight for the paintings always. But I would try to do these collages and they were very forced. When I was in grad school, they pushed me to try some different stuff to see what works. They said, “All of a sudden, you discovered color when you got your hands on fabric. You weren’t using all these murky, muddy, sad colors anymore—you found color.” So that was good. It was a helpful breakthrough!
It’s this funny full-circle thing. I started embroidering on drawings, and then it exploded off into full 3D pieces, and then I just wanted to go as 3D as possible. I’m making these massive 20-foot installation pieces, but then now I’m going back to the canvas and putting things on canvas.
2. You just had a piece in 300 and Under at Location Gallery, and that was pretty small. What’s it like to go small when you’re used to working big?
Some of that stuff has been the biggest challenge, trying to make small works. How do you make a statement with something that tiny? How do you cut it?
I’ve been experimenting with that and the key is you have to have something a little silly and make it fun for yourself. Or, I’ll think of it as a bite-sized section of something bigger and that’ll help me wrap my head around it. Doing the smaller works is hard.
3. Tell me more about your style.
Somebody will walk up to it and say, “Ew!” Or say, “That’s hilarious!” I like when people have that complicated reaction because if it’s about love or relationships or things like that, there are grosser aspects , sadder aspects—it’s all very complicated.
It’s funny because I’ll feel that way in the studio making it. I’ll have a weird reaction to the materials and now I’m kind of hooked on that. I can’t just go back to paint, I don’t think.
4. How do you choose what items to use in your work?
I like to have really complicated stuff. I like to have something that’s really lush, like a real fur texture, with something really visceral and gross. I like the same with cheap and expensive—something really chintzy matched with real fur.
Sometimes my students find out I work with these weird, creepy things, and they’ll be like cats and bring me these dead things. I’ll be like, “Okay, that’s great,” and use them. Or I’ll use eBay. I find lots of scrap stuff, and it’s mostly stuff people throw out. That ends up being my favorite stuff.
I do rip apart my old sculptures to make new sculptures. The work’s not really eco-friendly, I wouldn’t call it that, but at least that one aspect of it is! It started out in grad school when I had to do it. I found out the materials would take on more history and look more interesting, a little more processed. Also, it’s just harder. It’s actually more challenging to find out, how do I repurpose this rather than just start from scratch? I thought it’d be easier, that it would save me time, but no.
I think it all just goes back to that thing of, I had to change my medium and it keeps you on your toes. You’re not just on autopilot. I think I’m always finding ways to do that.
5. What’s next for you?
I try to do lots of work and shows before school starts. I just got back from Athens and took down an show, and I was really lucky that I got to take down work and put up work for a new show at the same time, same trip. I set up a show called “Yellow.” It’s a big group show at Athica. All the work is yellow, so I set up this big beehive tentacle piece I have, and it has this creepy queen bee in it.
Right now, I’m making a cactus garden out of fabric. I’m planning it to be a couple panels, one with this gross flayed creature arm and then the other will be a bug that’s molting.