Kelsey Henderson is a painter based in Brooklyn who explores themes of punk, other young subcultures and the body through her intricately realistic paintings. Creating mythical magazine covers, designing the art work for bands, documenting her life through photography, filming music videos and littering global leather jackets with her incredibly popular pins, Henderson has made a life for herself based on her own subcultural lifestyle and interpretation of it.
Of more recent she has made music videos for the bands Crocodiles and The Soft Moon, shirt design for Marching Church, Band photos for Cheena, La Misma & Survival and also created album art for Death Index that will be out later this year.
I went to her studio in Williamsburg with Tamara Santibanez to discuss her work, inspirations and contemporary punk.
Reba: Tamara, it would be interesting to find out how you found out about Kelsey’s work?
Tamara: Well Kelsey and I knew each other by sight from seeing each other at the YMCA,
Kelsey: A very punk place to be (laughs)
T: A very punk place to be (laughs), but I would always see that there was this other girl with black eyeliner and all black clothes
K: And she’d catch my eye as well, I always thought she had a good look and seemed cool
T: And then I came to take photos, to visit my friend Twiggy who had a space in a shared studio and it turned out to be Kelsey in the other half , so that’s how we got talking and thats when I saw Kelsey’s paintings for the first time in real life. But I remembered that I’d actually seen Kelsey’s paintings before, maybe through our mutual friend Chad, he might have shown me her work…and anyway that’s how we became real good friends
R: Real good friends. Kelsey, when did you start painting?
K: My sophomore year in College at RISD ( Rhode Island School of Design), before that I was mostly just drawing all the time, but when I graduated high school I was starting to feel bored with it, no longer having a connection to it. I was either going to go into painting or sculpture for my major, but realized I was more inspired by other painters work than sculptures, so I decided to try painting out. The transition from pencil to paint felt really good. I’ve always been a figurative artist and liked how paint was more flesh-like in consistency in a way than graphite. It felt like the right transition.
R: A lot of your work is heavily influenced with punk, why is this?
K: That’s more of a transition I’d say
R: How long has that transition been going on for?
K: The last three years maybe? I guess some of the subjects in older work could be connected with it but I was doing a lot more nude work which was trying to step away form any other influence or knowledge of a person, just focused on a human and their vulnerability. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I started to paint images that I felt more connected to and excited by. I used to always save images on my computer which were much more weird and what I like to look at, then I had some of my closest friends from college come over for a studio visit and they helped me intertwine my visual interests with my paintings by simply telling me ‘why don’t you paint what you like looking at’?
R: It made sense
K: Yeah and from that point on my paintings became much more entwined with my interests as a person and my life, before they felt separated.
T: I remember seeing a solo show of Kelsey’s, overall the work had hints of story telling and hints of subculture and certain reactions but now you’re telling more of a complete and clear story
K: Yeah! That show was about two years ago in December. It was based on having a bunch of separate images in one room that would read together to tell the bigger picture and story. Whereas this new series is much more visually coherent. One doesn’t have to see all the other paintings in together in order to get the gist. I have a very specific focus with this group and am still very much excited by it, which never happens. Usually I just paint an idea once or twice and then move on, but I could keep going with these for a bit.
R: So the paintings that are in the studio right now are magazine covers?
K: Yeah, well, fake magazines that don’t exist. It started with the found image that I painted “Teenager in Action” . When I saw it I was like “what is this magazine?!? it looks amazing. i’ve got to buy it!” But then upon research I realized it didn’t exist. It was a still from an 80’s Boston hardcore documentary… and the border was a porn magazine, two completely separate things. It was perfect. Exactly what got me so instinctually excited about the image when I first saw it, the very thing that made me want to buy it… fetishizing the subculture world. From that point on, I have been researching old porn magazines for text and covers that aren’t blatantly saying anything about sex to combine with outside imagery.
R: They’re erotic to some extent?
K: Yeah but only with a fetishization or titillation of what it is to be young and “wild”.. I’m putting images of subcultures from 70’s/80’s, maybe 90’s, and connecting them to the enticing world of porn font (laughs), playing with the eroticised part of them and slightly fantasised connection that people have with punk and youth and subcultures, but at the same time changing the text meaning… it’s no longer about porn or sex, it’s a whole other storyline now.
R: Different entity to them. As someone who has been involved in the punk scene in NY, how much of that do you think informs that work you’re making?
K: It’s important for me to be part of the scene if I’m representing it in my work, rather than just commenting on something i’m not apart of. For me, It’s about the creative people in my life. I love taking photos at shows or of friends and then finding photos that were taken from a few decades ago that have a similar thread of what’s happening now in my life, so they kind of feed each other
R: Because then that creates an idea of authenticity
K: One hundred percent, it’s about real connections and real friendships. I get really annoyed or turned off when someone’s too much of an observer, because then I don’t know what you’re giving, what’s the authenticity of your work if you aren’t a full participant in it?! Being a part of what inspires you is important. I think it allows for sincere work and true respect for the subject matter.
R: Less genuine. What is it about punk that you like?
T: It can be a really illusive thing. I think when people ask me what it is about punks that’s so exciting and alluring and rather than trying to hit the nail on the head as to what exactly that is or what your connection is to it in a very succinct way about what it is that you could describe about it being a personal connection, about it being personally influential and something more social and community based than a person saying ‘oh I love punk, because I love leather’, It can be satisfying because it is so much ore than just the look and that’s why its so obvious when people are missing the point.
K: Yeah I mean its definitely a social community base and a lot of creative people are involved in the scene, although it’s funny, one time I was talking to a really big designer about a possible collaboration with me painting on leather jackets and he was turned off by my imagery because he felt like it was “too punk” which he saw as young, loud and unrefined.
R: It’s not ‘sophisticated’ enough?
K: Yeah, It does have that connection with some people in some communities but I think it’s different here in NY. There’s actually incredibly creative people involved in the scene here so it’s not that young dumb thing that people connect punk with
T: There also is a value to that reactionary nature of it I think, which is something that you experience when you go and maybe what drives you to punk in the first place and understand the involvement with it politically when you fully start to developed your world views, so I think me being young and dumb is an important part of being punk in a sense
R: Oh completely, its about an energy and its about being reactionary and revolting against things
T: That’s what I mean, those reactions sometimes are exceptionally immature but those reaction are important, I don’t think that punk has to be highly evolved or sophisticated to have an effect, ultimately its kind of like a metaphor.
R: Its interesting because a lot of the paintings that are here, a lot of them seem like older images of punks?
K: They are
K: I’m interested in tying multiple decades together as a way to show a timelessness. It’s been happening for a number of decades now, saying it was happening then and it’s happening now. I’m focused on multiple subcultures and the commonalities between them all. Maybe in time I’ll work from the photos I’ve been taking as well.
R: Do you take a lot of photos?
K: Yeah, at shows or hanging out with friends. I have a lot of amazing people around me and I try to document it all as much as I can.
R: And why do you think the punk scene in Brooklyn is so strong?
K: I think there’s a lot of different types of punk communities everywhere
R: It seems particularly prevalent here though?
K: right, I wouldn’t say I’m the best person to even comment on it, but the special thing I see is what happening in NY city has a lot to do with the people. A lot of my friends in the scene grew up here and have been involved from a very young age, some even come from parents who were a part of it a generation before them and what I see them doing now, instead of just making music that sounds like “punk”, they’re shifting it up because they’ve lived in that world of what it is for so long and now they’re expanding and growing and learning more and allowing a new creation of what that music and world is. It’s exciting and special to see.
R: So with this series of paintings, are you going to carry on using the same themes? Do you see them changing at all?
K: This is connected to a much bigger project I’ve been thinking about and working towards. I see a lot of elements to this concept besides just painting I’ve been taking photos and working on videos. For example, I’ve got a fake yearbook in the works, where I’m taking photos of friends and people in this community and subculture, and pretending it’s warped real world “class of 2015”
R: And how are you choosing people for that?
K: They’re all friends or acquaintances. I’m not generally getting people involved who I don’t have any connection with, I’m keeping it personal in that way.
R: But you think they are good?
K: Yeah, so I’ve been doing that and I’ve been doing video work of people shaving their heads or applying make up, showing daily routines or preparations for a how they want to present themselves… their uniforms etc. So, for me, if I’m thinking about the big picture with all the other mediums I’m working in, I’m presenting a world where subcultures are the primary reality/ norm, because that’s what my life is whereas I know for the rest for the world that’s not the case.
R: It’s for you, what about this painting with the gloves?
K: That was from my last solo show, when I started working from found images
R: Where were you finding these found images, when you are researching what are you looking for?
K: Some are sent to me from wonderful people, because people know my taste, others I find in my rabbit hole internet searches.
R: So you’ve basically got a very specific taste that people associate with you?
K: Oh yeah
R: Could you explain what that is?
K: People often think of me when they see bad bruises or bloody noses
R: So you like physical, visceral images of the body?
K: Yeah, but I connect to them like a self portrait. I’m incredibly pale and covered in bruises all the time and even in my old work painted nudes they’d always have a cut or a bruise or something. I’m fascinated by the combination of fragility and strength in the human body. I remember one time in college I got cut and I hadn’t bled in a long time and I remember having the awareness of how fragile and how simply you can get hurt and yet how the body can just heal itself.
R: Aware of the reality of the physicality of the human body?
K: Yeah, I mean it’s not this morbid thing, it’s not a morbid sensibility like someone thinking another person being beaten is cool, there’s got to be something more, more depth, meaning and beauty
R: Do you feel like there’s a community of artists as well that you’re kind of working with at the moment, any particular painters? Or do you feel like potentially what you’re doing is different to what everyone else is doing within your scene?
K: I’m very isolated from the art world, the music world is my social life, it’s what I like to do. I’m constantly going to shows whereas I feel much more disconnected from the art world. I do have some close friends who I can talked to about art and who’s opinions and thoughts I value greatly but for the most part I’m primarily in my head when I’m working than involved in a community of artists in that way
R: What have you been working on recently?
K: Lot’s of side projects outside of my own work. Enamel pins, which I started making last year as a way to make more affordable art for the very people/ subculture I’m inspired by. Two music videos, I’ve been taking photos of friends bands and making art for bands as well.
R: What kind of people buy your work, are they kind of similar in anyway or they quite different?
K: As far as the other smaller stuff like the pins that’s all been through instagram. But with my paintings I don’t know, I don’t always meet them.
R: A gallery represents you?
K: Yeah, so a lot of the times I’m just told it’s sold, that’s it and all I’ll know is what country they went to etc. Occasionally I’ve had the gallery set up studio visits so I get to meet the people interested in my work, but I’m pretty detached from it all… Is that weird? (laughs)
R: How long do the paintings take to do?
K: With the magazine series at the most, ten days, like the last one I did was probably three days. My friend, Richard Phillips, recommended some good brushes and paints and it’s really picked the pace of my work up for me. That and working in black and white has been simplifying things for me and saving time.
R: So is this painting going to be in an exhibition?