Anthony-Noel Kelly

The Ambassadors

Artist Anthony-Noel Kelly in conversation with Sophie Lévy Burton, over coffee on outside tables at Rocca, 73 Old Brompton Road on 24 October. Full moon in Taurus, warm autumn day, 18 degrees Celsius; slight breeze moving the dust about the pavement. Scratchy traffic. Anthony arrives late on a motorbike having just looked around for Bacon’s studio (opposite Rocca in Reece Mews).

I DON’T LOOK back, I go forward. This idea of journeying you ask me about, journeying as an artist, a spiritual journey, that’s all good and well darling but you know… this is not interesting to me.

What is interesting is what I’m doing at the moment: the present. 

It’s unconscious you see, one feeds off another, I don’t want to be greedy and analyse myself in that way; it’s like the nature of inspiration; I don’t want to look at it but instead go with the flow. If I look at it then I might stop creating. 

For me it’s not a journey, not remembering the past, not analysing the present too much. Let it run.

You’re hungry for information but I only wish I could explain myself better.

Sometimes I struggle; I feel I’m not an artist. An artist is someone who goes to bed with dirty paint everywhere; I’m just a hardworking idiot. In a strange way the concepts behind my projects are more important to me. This is what I feel with my spiritual portrait project The Ambassadors.  I’m on my final two portraits out of sixteen, not so much of leaders but of practitioners in faith, ambassadors for faith; these are people who believe – who die for their belief… It’s an important part of life.

I mean we’re talking about journeying, metaphors and all but I literally just got back from China – all the way to China to paint these two new portraits, my Confucius and my Taoist.

All the way to China, that’s how much I believe in this project. It was tough. I was isolated, this was a lonely experience – literally no one spoke English! I felt fragile but I’ll do this for my project. I’ll do this for The Ambassadors because I believe in it. Belief about belief, if you like.

I painted my sitters for an hour and a half everyday, in silence and often frankly, in mime. It ended up a kind of pilgrimage, but it re-affirmed my weakness. That was part of it, an interesting process. I felt a bit like Columbus in a new land and I came back into Heathrow with my precious portrait packages but it was a hell of a fucking journey.

Of course to believe in something is to have little doubt. I’m not religious in the conventional sense but follow humanistic values, more specifically the power of love – love over evil – sucker for love darling – and our responsibilities in a shared world.

But if you look at the portraits… They’re objective not emotional, with eyes cast down. I mean darling, I love painting eyes, they’re fathomless, but here in this project I want to try to capture the energy of the an active faith not the ego, but the meditation. So there is no connection, because they are meditating or in trance – or praying or reading a devotional work. 

It’s been hugely interesting to meet these people. I’m always hoping someone I meet will change my life. I’m still waiting. 

Those represented vary in status from senior priests who have churches or temples to lay people who simply practice their faith – there are 16 religions of over 5 million adherents, distinct yet ironically quite similar. When I build a portrait I rely on this white background that I use, it’s like a signature. I use translucent oil on the gesso on plain wood; this shows up the white like paint, it becomes part of it.  The perfect portrait is tactile, the paint moves, it’s got a life in itself. I’ll exaggerate aspects of people to make them more animated.

In a way this project is full of faults.  I fail as a human because it’s just an impression that I’m painting, but you know artists are just magicians; painting is a conjuring, like magicians; Bacon, Van Dyke, they’re just creating, conjuring something.

No, The Ambassadors is not commercial at all, it can only be sold en masse and I haven’t paid anyone for posing. Any monies will go to an agreed charity. It’s a serious attempt to record Faith. People die for their Faith. They should be recorded for it. 

Ambassadors came out of another religious project, about religious books.

It’s taken me three years to collect nine language versions of the same sacred books. It’s an honour to have them, and I receive them with honour, sometimes wrapped in silk.

People die for their faith, people die for their book.

It’s so meaningful to have it in their homes. 

It’s polemical, provocative what I’ve done. I’ve got the Guru Granth Sahib on top of the Torah, touching it. The Koran touching the Torah. It’s mathematical, this pile of books, Confucius, the I Ching, Tao, the largest on the bottom, random. Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists. They are all virtually the same their dogmas, I’m making them into one book and yet they are all different. For people who understand about love they will be one book, but for people who are ignorant, they are different books. 

But I can tell you’re looking for themes and narratives; if you want a link at all, my deconstruction in portraiture really started in the late 1990s when I had these body parts, many torsos, many arms. I started to understand, deconstructing nature. I was using body parts to represent life. 

(Note: In 1998 Anthony-Noel Kelly was found guilty of the theft of body parts from the Royal College of Surgeons; he was sentenced to 9 months’ imprisonment. The body parts were used to cast and exhibit sculptural forms).

It’s still intriguing for me to see parts of the body together rather than joined up. Look at the Greek torsos without heads. They’re uncharacterised without a head, an anonymity and you’re imagination can run wild; it’s not Mr. and Mrs. anymore. I paint them fragmented. It’s not a classical portrait; it’s not a conventional portrait, smiling heads… For example, I think you can lose yourself in the female figure, the female parts, not what it represents but you’re involved in the curves and the colours of skin tone of the curves. 

I paint within the skin. Look at Lucian Freud. He spent ages mixing the earth colours, and then just so assured and confident, he just put it on, a true master, a fluid palette. He’s tactile, so many different shades in that shadow. I admire that greatly, though I struggle to come anywhere near it. Hockney’s drawing when he was a student at the Royal College, and early work, just wonderful. Maggie Hambling, her work is very impetuous, a hurricane of emotions, colour mixing together on the canvas. You ask me what I like but what I don’t like… I don’t like hyperrealism.

This episode 20 years ago when handling human body parts wasn’t really an epiphanous moment of creativity but more a natural progression of work of the 1990s. I’d been illustrating for Cancer Research, dissecting farm animals, drawing the human body, etc. Since I wasn’t causing anyone any physical harm I felt no need to analyse the situation very much. I don’t want to go back, I don’t owe it. It doesn’t deserve to be talked over, in a way it’s ill fated me, it’s given me no kudos or positive public relations, and it was never taken up subsequently. If my work was more commercial… 

Anyway how about the ethics regarding the exhumation of Egyptian mummies and separating the grave’s contents?

At the moment I’m painting my daughter, just her head against a white background, which is my signature if you like and an inch or two away is her leg, in suspension.  So for me no one part of the body is more intriguing than another. No background, always white, always disconnected. 

This manner of fragmenting an object into parts is a recurring theme of mine, a tool inviting the observer to share my inquiry. It has become an unconscious leitmotif, to physically deconstruct and separate elements and consider the parts a total of the whole. It’s a way for me to explain and celebrate life and death. Everything we see is reliant and a part of something else. In turn we are made up of countless cells, dividing and reproducing… 

A lot of portraits are tough to look at. To paint a woman is a skill those subtleties I lack. 

Sometimes I struggle with art, who doesn’t?

For 30 years I’ve kept a diary. I can’t seem to get across to other people how I feel; at least with this I’ve told someone. All my work is in there – my projects, sketches, conversations… This inner world you want to capture so much. No darling, you can’t have an extract of it. 

A lot of the diary is a grind, venting my feelings. It’s an emotional vessel. But it’s honest, no cover up. I don’t reread it. I’ve had someone transcribing it. It’s like my psychiatrist and soul-mate, and yet it doesn’t speak back at me… 

You can get a lot of emotions from art but in the end its only fucking canvas and paint, it’s not immortal. 

You say I’m being reductive but Bacon would say the same. You look at Bacon’s crucifixion and you’re bringing your own stuff to it but words have something over 3D and 2D. It’s direct, intimate. Its difficult in a painting, there’s too much distance, don’t you think? Words carry feelings that I can’t say in my visual work. Am I keeping something back, in my work? They say when Lucien Freud does a portrait of someone there’s more of him than the sitter in the portrait or the spirit of the sitter. 

My diaries are those of an artist, a visual artist, so intimate, perverse that they cannot be read. You say this is the key to my work and then point out it’s under lock and key…  you’re being clever. I feel strongly that my diary writing, which is more like a scrapbook –photos, sketches, conversations etc.– if I can write down my day however shitty then it’s done, I’ve exhaled it.  Write that down darling, it’s key:

I’ve exhaled it…

I’m less scared of death now, I feel I’ve knocked on enough doors, I’ve done sufficiently, made the world a better place, I’ve left something behind. I wouldn’t mind dying so much now. I’ve done enough.

As told to Sophie Lévy Burton
November 2018 MONK

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