Artists We Love: Kelly John Gough

INTERVIEWED BY Cheri Morris IMAGES Kelly John Gough

Capetonian artist Kelly John Gough captures the human form in striking contrasts of rich, bold oils on wood panel backdrops.

The nudes and portraits that make for Kelly’s subject matter are equally as elegant and classical as they are they are provocative. His works are enriched by a skilled treatment of light and shade through a chiaroscuro technique that excites areas of negative space while highlighting the natural grain and knots of the wooden panels. From large scale pieces to compact miniatures, Kelly’s distinct style always makes for an alluring and emotional aesthetic. We caught up with Kelly to find out what fuels his creative fire.

Before focusing full time on your first love of fine art, you worked in publishing and production for 12 years. What inspired you to make the change?

Even while I was working in publishing and advertising, I was always painting when I could – it really is, and has always been, my first love. But the turning point came when I sold an artwork through a gallery, and then saw that collector sell it on to another collector for a significant amount of money. It made me realise that I had something, and that dealers and collectors believed I had something too. That initial collector became my patron, which helped me take the jump and quit my job to paint full time. He’s no longer my patron, but it was the start of a very exciting journey for me.

The interplay between wood grain and human form in your work is beautiful. What inspired the use of wood as your preferred canvas?

When I first painted directly onto wood, it was a rather serendipitous accident – I had a wooden panel at my disposal and I planned to actually paint it so that you wouldn’t be able to see that it was wood underneath the painting. But as I got further into creating the artwork, I fell in love with how the use of negative space and the exposed wood grain added a whole new dimension, texture and feeling to the artwork. I found myself considering the grain and knots in my composition and the end result was really special to me – so I left the wooden texture exposed. I haven’t really looked back from there – I love that every piece of wood I paint on is completely unique with its own fingerprint of patterns and knots. It adds something very special to the fabric of each artwork. I’ve also always loved working with my hands and building the wooden panel and frame has become an intrinsic part of my artistic process: I select panel pieces based on their patterns and the overall composition I have in mind. The brushstrokes and the wooden canvas are no longer two separate processes for me.

You have done numerous solo exhibitions. Do you have a favourite, and why?

My recent solo exhibition, Outsiders, which opened at Youngblood Gallery, is very close to my heart. It was a study of people and their stories through a series of intimate portraits. Painting the subjects and having many of them sit for me, learning their stories and bonding with them, was incredibly touching and special. There’s something very privileged about being allowed into other people’s lives and personal stories the way that I was for this exhibition. Each portrait has a truly meaningful story and, together as a body of work, the challenge and perception of outsiders in society is one I resonate with closely.

What do you consider to be the highlight of your artistic career?

This year, one of my large-scale artworks, Sleep of Reason was hung for the re-opening of the landmark heritage building, The Cosmopolitan, in Johannesburg’s Maboneng Precinct. The story behind this historical building and its renovation is very special, and to have my artwork shown so prominently as part of this re-opening was a real honour. I’d thoroughly recommend visiting the space in Maboneng – there’s a lot to see there. I also will never forget the Italian designer Rossana Orlandi seeing my artwork and remarking to me that it was ‘very beautiful, very sad’. In those four words, she got it, and that’s always an amazing and rewarding feeling as an artist.

How would you describe the artistic process that leads to the creation of each unique piece?

In all honesty, long-winded and frustrating! Every single piece takes a significant amount of emotional investment on my part; I paint and portray things close to my heart, that have some kind of significance to me, and that can be draining. I think all artists pour a little of their soul into each of their creations, and putting that out there to share with others is both incredibly special and, at the same time, delicate and sensitive. It is in the sharing of my artwork that I find the most joy and reward, but also the most vulnerability.

What’s next for Kelly John Gough?

I’m currently working on two works, Still Life and Why Beauty Matters, which are both ideas and stories very close to my heart and to my overall artistic vision. I can’t wait to reveal the finished artworks and exhibitions!

Kelly is currently showing at the Cape Town Club, G2 Art and Rust-en-Vrede. For more information about his work, visit his website.