'So, tell me again,' says Kelsey Brookes as he's ushering me into the art-filled South Park house he shares with his girlfriend and a roommate, 'what did your dad say when he saw that painting?'
He's talking about a piece I bought from him last year at a group show at Magpie, the boutique/art space in Brookes' neighborhood. At the time, he and his work had been popping up in my periphery: at galleries and coffeehouses, on the cover of local band Grand Ole Party's three-song debut CD, in an article on underground art blog Fecalface.com.
The small painting I took home--a steal at $100--features two nearly nude women with spank-mag bodies and fuck-me shoes. One stands with her leg lifted and her fingers reaching between her legs, her upper body twisting around to face forward. The other squats, hand at her crotch and face leaning in toward the sweet spot between the other girl's thighs. Their heads have both been replaced by Hindu godheads.
It hangs in a prominent spot in my living room and has elicited many puzzled second glances. One former neighbor, a photographer, told me it was vulgar and suggested I move it to the bathroom. My dad didn't say a word. He chuckled, shook his head and shot me a look that said: I love you, but what the hell?
Brookes laughs when I relay these reactions. 'Yeah, I've heard that from a lot of people, actually. It's a pretty common response.'
His work is full of similarly unnerving tableaus: hipster-looking compositions with bodies in varying stages of undress and in X-rated poses, multiple limbs and eyes, animal heads and masks.
There's such an intriguing thematic consistency to his work that it's startling to learn he's a relative newbie in the art scene. He studied microbiology in college and only recently quit his job at a biotech company. Growing up in Colorado, he says, he never had any real interest in making art. It was only a few years ago, on a months-long surf trip in Australia after college, that he taught himself to draw.
Now he's a growing blip on the cultural radar. He's represented by a gallery in London; he designs for the taste-making, arts-minded clothing company RVCA; he sells paintings and prints at shows in the U.S. and in Europe and through his website (www.kelseybrookes.com)--all the while still learning his craft. Brookes, who at 29 looks more like the archetypal California surfer boy--scruffily cute, sun-bleached and a charming mix of friendly and goofy--than a former scientist, is obviously a natural.
He recently returned from a show at the Milieu gallery in Bern, Switzerland--his first-ever solo--where he presented a new collection called Supernumerary. Single male or female figures, in poses that are an uncomfortable collision of erotic and spiritual, share canvas space with colorful ornamentation: diamonds filled with textile-inspired florals; thin overlapping patterns like unfinished spirographs; brocade-like swaths of illustrated leaf motifs. Heads have been replaced by a menacing sabertooth tiger skull, a monkey head and, most bizarrely, in a piece called 'Chris Robin Grows Up,' a smiling, disembodied Winnie the Pooh. All are done in a bright and soothing palette of blues, browns, reds, oranges, yellows, pinks and greens.
A couple of the large pieces from the Bern show are propped on easels in the converted garage that serves as Brookes' living and workspace. Some of his earlier works hang in the front house, salvaged by his girlfriend (he initially wanted to reuse the canvases). But it's in this secluded back studio, where visual stimuli cover nearly every inch of wall space, that you start to understand what Kelsey Brookes is all about. There are the two handed-down Salvador Dali lithographs that he remembers staring at with awe and confusion as a child.
'You see that?' he asks, pointing to the animal head attached to one of the human figures.
He also has framed Banksy prints and a large painting by his buddy Dave Kinsey. A zebra mask bought for him by his girlfriend's mother hangs near the entry to his skylight-lit studio space, where he pulls a thick book from a stack on his desk and flips through page after page of lavish Hindu iconography.
'It's just amazing,' he says, touching his fingertip to the tiny details. 'Look, he's got, like, 3,000 arms and 40 heads, and there are all these weird things going on. People are nude; there are animals and birds. I'm so drawn to the intense imagery.'
Tacked to the wall above a worktable is a printout of a classic Americana quilt pattern, which explains the diamond-shaped patterns in his latest work.
'My mom made quilts when I was a kid,' he explains. 'It's so beautiful and American.'
But the porn-star poses, the perky young bodies--what's that all about?
'Whenever there's sexuality involved, people freak out,' he says. 'Sexuality is such a part of the human experience. There's a science behind it, and customs and rituals. But when all the innuendo is stripped away, people get turned off.'
His figures teeter on the brink of bawdy, but the animal heads and ornamentation save his artwork from being little more than edgy and beautiful smut.
Man-beast creatures play a persistent role in art history: the fire-breathing chimeras of Greek mythology and the elephant-headed Ganesha of India; the satyrs boozing and spying on women in the art of the Renaissance; the dreamlike hybrids in so many paintings by 20th-century master Marc Chagall.
By compositing human and animal forms, the conventions associated with the human form alone can be exploited. Restraints on sexual mores are loosened. The satyrs, for example, were considered noble savages; unfettered, they could get away with lewd behavior. For Chagall, fantastical and highly symbolic figures created an alternate reality. Or, as he once remarked, 'Great art picks up where nature ends.'
Brookes, who's been busy absorbing thousands of years of art while developing his painting skills and personal aesthetic, seems to be treading on similar territory. Sexuality is a little bit freaky--by making it freakier than ever, he's granting the freedom to hang it in plain view of neighbors and parents and anyone else who might do a double take.