Feb. 20 2013 03:37 PM

The stories behind the artist's characters can be found in their peepers


There's just something about those eyes.

Whether discussing Vermeer, Warhol, Van Gogh or contemporaries like Samara Golden or KAWS, it's difficult to ignore how they use eyes to tell the story. When one looks at Edvard Munch's "The Scream," is it the swirl of madness behind the figure or the look of sheer terror in those jutting, preemoji eyeballs that we notice first? Could one argue that even with his incised, naked physique, it's that opaque stare into the distance towards Rome that gives "David" his majestic brilliance? And it's certainly not Andre the Giant's nose that makes us want to "Obey."

There's just something about Kelly Vivanco's eyes. 

Well, not so much her eyes, although they are a striking bluish-gray. Rather, it's the eyes in her signature mix of pop-surrealism and Renaissance portraiture. The Lewis Carroll playfulness among the characters—be they children, woodland creatures or sometimes both—is both fantastical and haunting. Each has a story and the more you stare, the more they stare back at you. And don't look to the gallery wall, to the accompanying informational label, for any hints. While the story may be in Vivanco's characters' eyes, it's your own eyes that will interpret that story.

"I've never set out saying, ‘Oh, I have to do big eyes,'" says Vivanco on the phone from her home studio in Escondido. "For me, it always brought to mind silent movies—how the actors would always exaggerate their eyes, because much of the story depends on expressions. I think it's a lot like that. Whatever you interpret that to be in my paintings, the eyes have to express these things, and it has to get to you wordlessly like a silent picture would. I know it's one of the first things you connect with. We're just programmed that way from birth to connect with faces, and the eyes especially."

Kelly Vivanco

A Southern California native, Vivanco has developed a small, but devoted, following both in San Diego and beyond. Since 2004, she's exhibited in places like London, Detroit, Atlanta, Seattle and Portsmouth, N.H. As lowbrow and pop-surrealist art has become increasingly more popular thanks to the Internet and publications like Juxtapoz and Raw Vision, it's also gaining recognition among the fine-art establishment.

What Vivanco surely has going for her is her accessibility. Mostly set in nature, there's an uneasy edge to her works, but also a comfortable familiarity. Pieces like "Wander" and "Where Things Grow" give the viewer a sense of assurance while tapping into the side of the brain that's in charge of absurd wonderment—that place where the viewer might still run with the animals or speak with the trees. That is, the people who buy her pieces may plan to hang them in their living room, but they might just as well be hanging them above their childhood beds.

"People tend to have a real connection with them," says Dylan Jones, one of the owners of Subtext Gallery in Little Italy. "Her work has a very broad reach, and we've seen everyone from young kids to grandparents fall in love with her characters."

"There seems to be something relational about each piece and the collections of unlikely heroes she often chooses as her subjects," adds Don Hollis, the other owner of Subtext, who's added Vivanco's pieces to his own collection. "The ongoing journey and implied adventure seem to be the thread she weaves across her body of work."

Subtext is well known for showcasing the best and brightest in contemporary and lowbrow art, and the gallery has been one of Vivanco's biggest champions; since 2007, she's been part of six group shows, one shared show (with Jason Limon) and her own solo exhibition, Dispatch From the Peppermint Forest.

While Subtext likes to feature her individually, Vivanco's newest piece on the gallery's walls, "Duck Wired," landed there serendipitously as part of a group show for PRISMA, an international collective started in 2011 that features 30 artists from five continents. Vivanco is the only local member. The show, The Animal in Me, which opened last week and will run through March 17, is the first exhibition to showcase all 30 artists. The show's curator, PRISMA founder Kaspain Shore, says Vivanco fit in precisely by not falling into a typical brooding-artist stereotype.

"She's amazingly helpful, funny, kind, and entering her art world is like entering the land of magic and dreams, so inviting her was an easy decision," Shore writes in an email from her home in Münster, Germany.

"It's great to have a support group of likeminded artists that are going through some of the same sort of things," Vivanco says.

Pink Flowers

Vivanco dabbled in oils for "Duck Wired," a departure from the acrylics she's used for years, and she recently left her workspace neighboring Distinction Gallery (she'll have another solo show there in 2014) to work more from home. She was recently tapped to create a series of wine bottle labels for the Temecula-based Wiens Family Cellars. When she isn't busy doing photo simulations for architectural projects or walking her two Chihuahua rescues around downtown Escondido, she's in her home contemplating what the characters in her head will get into next.

Whatever you get from her work or from those eyes staring back at you, Vivanco is comfortable with how the story will unfold.

"I'm just painting and leaving the story up to you. It just opens up the art to so much more than just saying, ‘Here's the picture, here's the explanation.' When you do it that way, the viewer won't get anything out of the work other than what the artist hands to them. However they see it, it says more about them than it does about me."

Email editor@sdcitybeat.com or follow Seth on Twitter at @combsseth.


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