It is not everyday that one gets to meet someone trained in mime, ballet and tightrope walking.
But at a talk at the School of Art on Monday evening, an audience of more than 50 got to meet exactly such person: New York-based performance artist John Kelly, who talked with the group about his artistic background and performing experience.
The talk was part of a Yale School of Art lecture series, and was an event anticipated by many community artists, said one audience member who described himself as a local artist.
“I like telling stories through movement, sound and altering the way I look,” Kelly said. “For me, performance is a visual art and an extension of my sporadic visual art experience.”
Kelly said he started out drawing as a child and then explored the fields of dance and music after going to college in New York City. He also said he is trained in ballet, modern dance, corporeal mime, trapeze and tightrope walking. Kelly blends elements from his background in visual art, dance and performance to create a variety of characters whom he channels during his performances, dressing as the characters and taking on their personalities. The characters add intrigue and vitality to performance, Kelly said.
“I get in my stride when I’m able to get into someone’s blood and guts and bones,” Kelly said. “If you lose your curiosity it gets boring.”
Despite Kelly’s emphasis on characterization, he still said that the process of transforming himself into another person was, in some senses, a reflection of his own person. The performer gives the character life and the performer learns about himself through the character, Kelly said.
Kelly said he reviews his own performances and removes elements of his own persona that seep into his characters’ during the performances. This act of self-editing, Kelly said, is the root of the self-reflective nature of his work.
“It’s a crapshoot, I have to improvise,” Kelly said of the self-editing process. “I have tape on the floor and a mirror.”
Though the self-editing takes place behind the scenes, self-reflection is also a primary theme in Kelly’s work. For example, in his theatrical performance “Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte,” Kelly transforms himself into the character of Egon Schiele, a Viennese impressionist artist, along with two other characters — “alter Egons” — who reflect on the character of Egon and also represent different aspects of the artist’s nature.
While Kelly’s work focuses significantly on his relationship with himself and the characters, he said performance is nonetheless a public art — neither private nor personal in essence.
“I expected Kelly to be more provocative since he is a performance artist,” Amelia Cai ’14, an audience member at the talk, said. “I was surprised to see that his work was more of a traditional stage performance.”
Cai added that she found it refreshing that Kelly worked within a more traditional medium of performance, rather than pulling shocking stunts often associated with contemporary performance art.
Kelly plans to expand his work to the media of CDs and visual recordings. He said he hopes to make CDs of both original songs and of Joni Mitchell’s work. He added that he is also planning on creating video vignettes that he can show in museums and galleries. The video vignettes will be extensions of live performances, but will be created with the camera in mind, Kelly said.
With more than two decades of performance behind him, Kelly said he is nonetheless still unsure of the message he wishes to convey through his work.
“Every piece is different and I don’t know what the meaning of any of it is,” Kelly said. “As long as I am able to move someone and create something beautiful, that’s great.”
Kelly is currently an Armory Artist in Residence at New York’s Park Avenue Armory. He also performed his work, “Brother,” at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 2001.