Over the past couple of years, I've become entranced by Andy Kehoe's vision of a twilight autumnal forest populated by a melange of spirits and gods, ruffians and guardians, companions and foes. Meanwhile, Andy has been building deeper layers of otherworldly mystery and metaphysical contemplation into his conceptual landscape, which he recently described as “a place where the spirits of the dead, the never-living and the yet-to-be all reside. This world lies unnoticed to the living, yet each world shapes the other. The thinnest of curtains separates the worlds, and they perpetually intertwine and overlap. Some live between both worlds, and are neither living nor dead, but something more fantastic – and in some cases, all the more horrible.”
"Keeper of the Beacons"
Andy's visual motifs bring to mind both the sort of brutal Germanic fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm, and Asian animistic folklore of forest gods and nature spirits that interact with mankind. Having been raised in Pittsburgh by his Irish-German father and Korean mother, he finds himself in the balance between two cultures, neither of which will embrace him fully. He recently revealed that being multi-racial "sticks you in this weird limbo, because a normal American thinks I'm – I don't know – some sort of full-Asian running around, and full-Asians think I'm like Spanish or something. It's really weird... I guess I learned at sort of a young age that I've got to live in sort of a limbo." Perhaps that why Andy's work seems to hover in an interstitial place, perpetually poised between day and night, summer and winter, hope and despair, life and death.
"The Flood Brings Curious Encounters"
Andy's upcoming solo show, "The World Unseen and Those In Between," will open on December 11th at Thinkspace, so I took that opportunity to ask him a few questions.
Erratic Phenomena: Tell me about your childhood, growing up in Pittsburgh with your twin brother Ben – both of you drawing obsessively. Was anyone else in your family an artist? Were there particular people who nurtured your talents?
Andy Kehoe: I remember seeing our mother's drawings as a kid, and she definitely encouraged our art-making. But we didn't need much of a push to spend hours doodling with crayons. Drawing was just really fun for both of us and an endless source of entertainment. We mainly did it because it was fun. What easy kids we were! Then in my later years, support from my mom and dad was overwhelming, and I couldn't have done it without them. I owe them a lot.
"Solace In the Unknown"
EP: Were there any picture books you read as a child that may have influenced your aesthetic?
AK: We had a whole collection of the Little Golden Books, so all the classic fairy tales had a real influence on me as a kid. I also remember having a kids' tape player with a whole collection of fairy tales and books to go along with them. My imagination was really stoked by listening to these tales and imagining faraway worlds in my mind.
"Budding of Hope"
EP: Your brother Ben also grew up to be a painter. Do you think being twins influenced the direction in which each of you developed? I can imagine the two of you forming your own absurd yet insular society, in defense against the depredations of the outside world.
AK: Having someone else to inspire and motivate you to create art growing up was definitely a boost. It was great making a drawing or a comic and having someone to share it with at all times. When I decided to go to art school, Ben wanted to do something different, and went to Temple University for business or something along those lines. Twins can sometimes suffer from identity crisis, and I think we wanted to do our own things and not be the same person. Haha. But, of course, Ben realized that making art is something he's always loved, and got back into making art again a few years back. Twins be damned! His artwork is shaping up amazingly, and I'm really excited in how it's turning out.
EP: Although your paintings are set exclusively in forests and wild meadows, you've always been a city dweller. What do you think inspired your fascination with the woods?
AK: I think the woods and nature hold more mystery than the civilized world. The city world is too ordered and compartmentalized. Plus, so many of the tales I read as a kid were set in forests and old small towns, so that probably influenced me in some way. I do feel a strong desire to escape to solitude and simplicity, and I know one day I'll probably live in the woods or by a lake somewhere away from the hustle and bustle of city life. But I'm not quite there yet. Even though I am a bit of a hermit, I know that I can still step out of my door and reenter society to find some human interaction. But it's only a matter of time before I'm the crazy hermit artist that only wears long johns and chases kids off my lawn with a rifle and a dog.
"Assassination of Hope Fails Again"
EP: Your work takes place in a perpetual autumn – a season you love for its crispness and wonderful aromas. Tell me why the season never turns in this sylvan world of change, death and renewal.
AK: This is more of a personal choice for me. I love autumn and so many of my really good memories seem to happen during this period. It awakens something in me that I can't really put my finger on. Unfortunately, it always seems to come and go in a blink of an eye, no matter how hard I try to relish it. In some ways, this is my way to extend it on infinitely.
"Truth Is Found In the Whispering of the Dead"
EP: In past interviews, you've harkened back to a time when "the world still held wonders," and you once hinted that you suffer from unsettling dreams. Would you say that you're tapping into the strange ocean of your subconscious mind in your work, or do you consider your concepts to be coming from a more rational place?
AK: I think it used to be easier for me to pinpoint where my ideas culminated. As this world I am painting begins to grow and become more clearly defined, it's kind of taken on a life of its own. I used to come up with concepts where "this means that" and "this character symbolizes that," but now elements seem to fall in place naturally, and things just make more sense. So maybe a bit of both – a rational tapping into the subconscious.
"Helpless Ensnared In Murky Mysteries"
EP: Many of your recurring characters embody states of mind, such as Hope, Truth, Solitude and Greed. Are all of these beings facets of your own experience, or do you identify with one of your creations more closely than others? Is the little horned man in the tweed coat your alter ego?
AK: These are mostly my attempts to work out my own personal issues, and I wouldn't define them as strict allegory. Working with strong themes helps me with the emotional aspects of my painting. Most of my characters have stories to them, but I only hint at them. I might clearly define them one day, but I like the fact that other people can inject their own stories and life experiences into my paintings. I guess the horned guy in the tweed jacket could be me. Haha. I consider him more the Everyman, dealing with the madness of the world.
EP: Despite its apparent simplicity, your work often addresses very serious and complex issues – loneliness, despair and death, as well as war, patriotism and government oppression. You've compared your work to folklore and mythology, which help people deal with their fears by putting the unknowable and uncontrollable in symbolic terms that are easier to understand. What inspired you to incorporate these dark matters into your pastoral landscapes? Are your allegorical narratives ever related to real-world events – either personal or political – or are you painting elements of a storyline that is distinct from our everyday reality?
AK: My work is very personal and I would definitely consider it a major outlet for me. I would be much more unstable as a person without it. This world really fucks me up sometimes, and these feelings find their way into my work, but in a more emotional way than a satirical way. I don't really try to relate my work to any real-life politics or issues, because I don't want my work to be a platform to any sort of ideology or political view. I would absolutely despise it if any one group used my work as a banner for their ideas. Politics frustrate me to no end. Sometimes I'll read up on it and my face will get hot and I feel a strong desire to punch something. Seems like everyone chooses a side and inherits a whole list of beliefs they vehemently and blindly postulate as the unwavering truth and the moral high ground. Then it becomes just a bunch of people talking at each other and reiterating the same nonsense over and over and over. Ugh. No thanks.
EP: In the world you paint, money is represented by blue leaves, and collected by black moss-faced Tax Agents. What does taxation signify for you, and why do you choose to symbolize it this way?
AK: Tax people scare me, and I'll leave it at that... in case they are reading this.
"Lord of Treasury Holds True Power"
EP: When you began to study illustration, you discovered that you loved painting detail. Do you still enjoy rendering thousands of individual leaves and blades of grass in your paintings? Why do you think you find it so satisfying?
AK: Besides the fact that I just love the way it looks, I think it's a matter of care. I really gravitate to work where I can see the love and attention the artist put into the piece. I want anyone that has a piece of mine to be able to see this and feel like they got something special. It's also kind of meditative and enjoyable to do all the tiny leaves and grass. Every painting has its own hoops to jump through and problems to solve, so I spend a lot of time thinking of what steps to take next. Bringing something that exists only in your mind out into the real world is quite an exercise in problem solving. When it comes to drawing a bunch of little leaves, it's kind of a relief because I can work for hours straight without taxing my mind too much.
"Days to Remember"
EP: About a year and a half ago, you began to experiment with painting in oils over a base layer of acrylic. The change of medium seems to have added a warmth and deeper sense of atmosphere to your work. What do you like best about this mixed-media approach?
AK: Oils really opened a lot of new alleys for me and got me really excited about painting again. It's a whole new medium to experiment with and the possibilities are endless, though I'm still getting used to the drying times, especially when the show is quickly approaching. Definitely takes some more planning.
"Carrier of Secrets and Mysteries"
EP: The faces of a few of your forest creatures remind me a bit of the Forest Spirit in Hayao Miyazaki's landmark film Princess Mononoke. Do you think you were influenced by his films in any way?
AK: I saw Princess Mononoke when I was a late teenager. That film blew me away! I loved that gods and demons lived amongst people, and the battle between humanity and nature is something that still resonates with me.
"Desolation Afflicts the Greedy-Hearted"
EP: Something about your golden grasslands and the sense of dread in your work recalls Terrence Malick's gorgeous but brutal masterpiece Badlands. Do you think that gritty film about two kids on a killing spree has any relevance to your work?
AK: Oh man, I love Terrence Malick, and his films have been a source of inspiration for me, for sure. His wide, expansive shots of landscapes are so stirring, and there's a mood to his films that a really connect with. I love Badlands, but probably relate to The Thin Red Line more so than any others. It shows the darker sides of human nature and the struggle to hold on to humanity throughout the horrors of war, with the beauty of nature as a backdrop to all of this.
"Finding Hope Here In the Clearing"
EP: A couple of years ago, you adopted a little black dog named Georgie, and soon afterward, you exhibited one of your most compelling paintings, "Finding Hope Here in the Clearing," in which an enigmatic forest god and a little black dog seem to be expressing a certain tenderness toward each other. Could you tell me about the emotions that produced that painting?
AK: I had to give up Georgie a little while after I adopted him. It wasn't the right environment and circumstance to have him, and it felt unfair to keep him. So I decided to to make a painting with him, in the hopes that he would have a beautiful future, and so that we could still be friends.
"The Upside-Down World of the Optimistic"
EP: Earlier this year, you left Pittsburgh, crossed the country and settled down in Portland, Oregon, where you soon found yourself sharing a timeworn attic studio with artist Evan B. Harris. Tell me a bit about what motivated this adventure, and how your new locale is influencing your life and work.
AK: I've never lived out west, and as I entered my thirties, I decided to adventure out to Portland before thoughts of settling down anywhere enter the picture. It's truly beautiful out here and I've definitely had experiences here that I never would've had if I'd stayed in Pittsburgh. I do miss Pittsburgh, though, and see myself back there in the future. Sharing a studio with Evan B. Harris has been amazing, as well. It's the people you meet and the little experiences in life that really shape your work, and I'm very excited in the direction it's taken.
Andy's studio in Portland (via Thinkspace)
EP: Your latest body of work, entitled "The World Unseen and Those In Between," will be exhibited in December at Thinkspace. What can you tell me about the theme of your latest work?
AK: "The World Unseen" is a show about the unseen spirit world and invisible forces that exist all around. It's been fun creating an even stranger and more mysterious world around my already pretty strange world. I've been playing around with ghosts and spirits in previous works, so it's been great dedicating a whole show to it.
"Decay Nurtures Life Anew"
EP: What's on the horizon for you? Hopes, dreams, plans for the future?
AK: I have more shows lined up as far as 2011, so I'll just keep on painting. There are other projects I'd like to put aside some time for in the future, such as a book or an animated work of some sort. I would love to branch out into some other mediums, so we'll see what happens.
Andy Kehoe's "The World Unseen and Those In Between" opens on December 11th at Thinkspace Gallery in Los Angeles.
"Old Enemies Reconcile Unseen"