Theres just something about those eyes.
Whether discussing Vermeer, Warhol, Van Gogh or contemporaries like Samara Golden or KAWS, its difficult to ignore how they use eyes to tell the story. When one looks at Edvard Munchs 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, its that opaque stare into the distance towards Rome that gives David his majestic brilliance? And its certainly not Andre the Giants nose that makes us want to Obey.
Theres just something about Kelly Vivancos eyes.
Well, not so much her eyes, although they are a striking bluish-gray. Rather, its 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 dont look to the gallery wall, to the accompanying informational label, for any hints. While the story may be in Vivancos characters eyes, its your own eyes that will interpret that story.
Ive 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 its 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 its one of the first things you connect with. Were just programmed that way from birth to connect with faces, and the eyes especially.
A Southern California native, Vivanco has developed a small, but devoted, following both in San Diego and beyond. Since 2004, shes 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, its also gaining recognition among the fine-art establishment.
What Vivanco surely has going for her is her accessibility. Mostly set in nature, theres 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 thats 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 weve 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, whos added Vivancos 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 Vivancos biggest champions; since 2007, shes 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, Vivancos newest piece on the gallerys 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 shows curator, PRISMA founder Kaspain Shore, says Vivanco fit in precisely by not falling into a typical brooding-artist stereotype.
Shes 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.
Its great to have a support group of likeminded artists that are going through some of the same sort of things, Vivanco says.
Vivanco dabbled in oils for Duck Wired, a departure from the acrylics shes used for years, and she recently left her workspace neighboring Distinction Gallery (shell 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 isnt busy doing photo simulations for architectural projects or walking her two Chihuahua rescues around downtown Escondido, shes 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.
Im just painting and leaving the story up to you. It just opens up the art to so much more than just saying, Heres the picture, heres the explanation. When you do it that way, the viewer wont 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.