Walking into artist Kelsey Brookes' studio in North Park, the first thing that greets you is a massive painting called “Feast Crispian.” Brookes tells me it's named after a lengthy monologue from Shakespeare's Henry V, in which the young king is trying to rally his dysentery-plagued troops to follow him into battle with the French one more time so that they might finally know peace. The painting itself is as epic as the speech, with shards of bright color, a Brookes staple, emanating and shooting out of a horse-mounted human figure. Looking closer, you see camouflaged words and phrases placed inside the figures. Some are from the Shakespeare play, others from a Walt Whitman poem, but one phrase stands out: “Human war never end.”
“That's a cock,” says Brookes, pointing out a massive phallus underneath the horse. “This [painting] was based on this work by Jacques-Louis David called ‘Napoleon Crossing the Alps.' It's about man's constant search for peace, but, you know, he always gets fucked by war.”
“Feast Crispian” is one of the larger pieces that will be displayed at Bigger, Brighter, Bolder, Brookes' first solo San Diego show opening on Nov. 20 at Quint Contemporary Art in La Jolla. For the past four years, he's traveled the world showing off his works in galleries and has landed gigs doing album covers and designing for surf companies. His style, a mix of bright colors, collaged and amalgamated to give form to strange, psychedelic deities and animals, has caught the eye of mags like GQ, Juxtapoz and Beautiful Decay.
The pieces he'll display for Bigger (some of which can be seen on www.kelseybrookes.com) are the culmination of a year's worth of toil inside his studio. But judging by pieces like “Feast Crispian,” some have taken on a darker, more mature tone than his previous work. Some are still playful. He points out two pieces that are based on Muppets characters and drug names. Another, “The Storm,” is based on a Dr. Seuss poem. But one piece, “The Red Queen,” is based on an evolutionary theory of the same name that hypothesizes that in order for a species to survive, it must evolve around the species surrounding it (germs, viruses, predators, etc.). Think of it as a biological arms race. The piece itself can conjure a mix of dread and excitement within the viewer—an explosion of color with an androgynous human figure surrounded by mischievous tiny creatures.
“Humans and their immune system in particular are evolving very quickly,” says Brookes, “but those predators are evolving at just the same rate. So it's like we're never really getting anywhere.”
“They deal with different topics, and they can mirror how I feel at different times,” he adds later. “There are times where I don't even know what I'm dealing with. I almost feel like some of them come from subconscious places where I'll do it and I'm not even cognitive of what's going on. I just do it. And then, once I stop, I can read back into the meaning of it.”
If Brookes sounds highly intelligent, that's because he is. To look at him, with his slip-on sandals, long hair and bushy beard, you'd think he was one of those surfer-types whose college major was business with a minor in tubular barrels. OK, so he does surf regularly, but before he became a full-time artist, he was, of all things, studying the West Nile Virus in a lab in Fort Collins, Colo., (he grew up outside of Denver) before moving to San Diego to do nucleic acid tests on HIV and hepatitis. Talk about a balance of the left and right brains.
“It was cool, but I just had an inkling that this wasn't it for me,” Brookes says. “I studied science because I had an aptitude for that. That's what you do—you're out of high school, you have your blinders on, and you don't see the rest of the world.”
Brookes took a year off and traveled to Australia, where he discovered surfing, as well as his inner artist. When he returned to San Diego, he became proactive. He did every art show he could. He hustled at the biannual Action Sports Retail convention, handing out his art to surf companies and also hitting up Pacific Beach businesses to see if he could hang some pieces. Things started to take off. The art was selling, and he landed a gig designing for surf companies like Insight and Ocean Pacific. He quit his bio-tech job and became an artist full-time four years ago.
Since then, he's done shows in London and Switzerland while making friends with influential artists like Banksy and landing in art 'zines like Pavement Liquor. He even went to the West Bank with a group of artists to do impromptu shows in town squares in Bethlehem and paint the barrier wall.
“Israeli troops would come by, and we'd hear shots fired,” Brookes remembers. “Hamas had a huge rally in the square that we were setting up the art show in. It was nuts. But all the locals there were super into what we were doing.”
Now, Brookes just wants to take his time and get it right. The past few years have been a bit of a whirlwind, which is converse to his easy-going nature. And we don't have to worry about losing him to Gotham or the Big Brother to the north. He says he could never make it in places like L.A. and New York because of the cutthroat nature of the art scenes.
“San Diego is more grounded than other places,” Brookes says. “I'm trying to take a long view when it comes to my art. I've seen people in those places where they get intensely famous and make tons of money and then that's it. I want to work as an artist for the rest of my life. I don't want to make a bunch of money and just go hang out. I wanna work really fucking hard and make really good shit, but I want to enjoy my life.”