Kelsey Brookes

Painter, San Diego // April 2013
Anything having to do with the brain is interesting to me; I have lots of curiosity and questions concerning existence, both philosophically and scientifically, and because of my background a good place to start my interrogation of life is through the brain.

Kelsey’s current work started out as a distraction. About a year and a half ago while still doing representational work, he began making small circular paintings as a way to break up his fastidious process. These mandala-like paintings were simply an escape, a moment of respite from a practice that had become labored and overwrought; while interviewing Kelsey in his San Diego studio he stated, “I wasn’t having fun representing these figures over and over again anymore… I started doing these more abstracted paintings because they were a distraction, and I wanted that.” And now Kelsey is fully immersed in this work— large, colorful, and methodical paintings based on his understanding of neurobiology, with a focus on the molecular structure of serotonin as well as hallucinogenic and pharmaceutical drugs and the visual patterns they create in our brains.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had an artist tell me that a shift in their work originated from a brief act of diversion. In the midst of highly involved work, artists often turn to the making of something else to give themselves some breathing space. Usually these acts are thought of only as brief interruptions in one’s practice; there is no preparation or forethought, no research, no design. Artists use different names for these exercises: doodles, sketches, studies, experiments, pauses… but essentially the terms mean the same thing: a space in time in which one can make without thinking too much. This is an important aspect of any practice because it intuitively answers the inexplicable call to create artwork. It’s simply a response, like a shout back to a voice in the dark. These interludes are guided by spontaneity and flexibility, and because they are often devoid of judgment they are crucial to the evolution of process and work. This is where breakthroughs happen. Literally.

I think Kelsey’s recent direction is on to something. His background in molecular biology and his curiosity concerning the nature of existence and perception, both philosophically and scientifically, ground the work and lend it weight. Given his particular interest in subject matter of consciousness, the line of inquiry he can follow with his work is potentially boundless, and that’s very exciting. But though Kelsey’s work is content rich, the eye-catching colors and patterns do not necessarily reveal the full extent of his thoughtful approach. In a way, the brilliant colors and radiating patterns overshadow Kelsey’s investigations and not so much because they are beautiful, but more because they are systematically so. The ideas Kelsey is tugging at are significant and as his understanding around these questions continues to deepen, I’m curious to see how he will push his work to reveal that depth.

How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
Molecular biology on acid. While working on my paintings I’m looking at the structures of certain molecules and also considering how they affect the brain. I’m particularly interested in the neurotransmitter serotonin and its impact on our general sense of wellbeing. But there are lots of other molecules in the human brain and in our culture that mimic serotonin in some way, and a lot of those are psychedelic molecules— such as DMT, psilocybin, LSD, and mescaline. These often elicit crazy visualizations, the way they affect the human visual system looks a lot like the abstract painting I’ve been working on.

Anything having to do with the brain is interesting to me; I have lots of curiosity and questions concerning existence, both philosophically and scientifically, and because of my background a good place to start my interrogation of life is through the brain.

What mediums do you work with?
Paint and canvas.

In my research on you and your work, I noticed much has been made of your previous work as a biochemist. What do you make of that? How has your background in science influenced your art?
In my previous work life I was a scientist, I studied it in school and for five years I worked in the molecular and microbiology field, so I think like a scientist. But the artistic and aesthetic values I’ve been learning as an artist had always seemed in opposition to my scientific way of understanding, until this current body of work. Art and science are often, and in my view incorrectly, seen as two opposing poles of a creative continuum. This is a misunderstanding of both. My recent work is a combination of my scientific background and current artistic interest— I have taken my understanding of molecular biology and married it with painting.

Your work seems to have recently shifted; you’ve moved away from more representational forms and instead you’re working with abstraction? How did that shift come about?
I did a show in London about a year and a half ago and I was still doing more figurative and representational work— I was painting animals with things like weird crystal patterns coming out of their eyeballs. But I could see that the work was beginning to head towards abstraction; it wasn’t an intentional choice, it just started to go in that direction. With my figurative work I would spend two weeks fixing the face of a bat because I wanted to get it just right; my practice was full of effort and care, but I stopped having fun doing it. I started to create these small circular paintings as a way to distract myself from the arduous figurative work I was doing. Repeatedly creating the same forms over and over got boring and I wanted to just paint and not deal with the figure and the small circular “meditation” paintings were a break from that. I took about four of these works to the show in London and nobody liked them, but I didn’t care because for me they were freeing; through the process of doing them I was finding release. Even though none of it sold in London I just decided to follow my instinct and that whole following year I didn’t do any figurative work. I love this new way of painting more than any other work I’ve done. But in a way, I am still a figurative or “representational” artist, except the things I am representing now are not seen as often (molecules and hallucinogenic visions).

What are you presently inspired by— are there particular things you are reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
Oliver Sacks, Richard J. Davidson, Richard Evan Schultes, E.O. Wilson, Albert Hofmann, and studies within ethnobotany. These scientists are working at the edge of human knowledge and conscious and reporting back to is what they find. I want to paint what they find. I want to paint the edge of human consciousness.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
I like long walls with preferably high ceilings and south facing windows. In my current studio I am lucky enough to have everything except the high ceilings. I always want to get to the margins with my paintings, so it would be great to have higher ceilings so that my work has the possibility to be bigger. If my studio’s walls and ceiling were twice as long and twice as high, I would be in heaven.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I’m working on two shows this year. In London in June I will be showing a new series of paintings inspired by hallucination and this fall in New York I will be showing a new series of works inspired by psychiatric medication.

Along with the work for my shows this year I am researching consciousness; more specifically how consciousness might have more to do with the behavior of atoms that make up the animal than any larger abstract notion of consciousness. There are lifetimes worth of interesting subject matter in there.

How do you navigate the art world?
With a lot of curiosity and a healthy dose of skepticism and caution. I eagerly enjoy art and I’m passionate about absorbing and observing the work of others, especially work that I don’t understand. All aspects of the art world interest me; I’m always curious about different galleries and what the reality of the business side of art is. But this is also why I’m a bit skeptical and cautious because the financial interests within the art world are often difficult and unspoken. Obviously as an artist, I have to sell work, but for me I have always wanted my financial viability to be slow-growing and sustainable. Sometimes galleries aim to make a lot of money very quickly, and that just isn’t the right model for me. I want to work with galleries that are long-standing cultural institutions that don’t push at an unsustainable rate. I’m looking to make work for the next 50 years— I want to live my life as an artist, I want to be doing this for the rest of my life. Here in San Diego Quint Gallery has been great; it’s exactly what I would hope for in a working relationship.

Do you have a motto?
This Chuck Close Quote is good:
Inspiration is for amateurs – the rest of us just show up and get to work. And the belief that things will grow out of the activity itself and that you will – through work – bump into other possibilities and kick open other doors that you would never have dreamt of if you were just sitting around looking for a great ‘art [idea].’ And the belief that process, in a sense, is liberating and that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every day. Today, you know what you’ll do, you could be doing what you were doing yesterday, and tomorrow you are gonna do what you [did] today, and at least for a certain period of time you can just work. If you hang in there, you will get somewhere.

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
I will have a show in London in June at Valmorbida
And another show in NYC in the fall of 2013 at Charles Bank Gallery.

Where can people see your work?