Since emerging on the East Village club scene in the early 1980s, renowned performance artist John Kelly’s enigmatic performance work has been presented at international venues and festivals. Blending elements of dance, storytelling, song, and experimental theater, his performance work draws from fictional and historical figures and subject matter ranging from the fall of the Berlin Wall and the AIDS crisis to German Expressionist film. His cast of characters—developed since the 1980s—has morphed personal narrative with stylized and celebrated notables from art history and culture. Whether the Mona Lisa, Caravaggio, Martha Graham, Egon Schiele, Jean Cocteau, Gustav Mahler, Joni Mitchell, Robert Schumann, or Maria Callas, Kelly has brought these characters life in a multitude of dimensions.
Solo and ensemble mixed media performance works include his AIDS allegory “Akin: True But Dour” (1992), and other powerful works dealing with the AIDS pandemic such as “Down in the Mouth” (1990), “Maybe It’s Cold Outside” (1991), “Constant Stranger” (1995), and “Brother” (2001). These eyewitness works corroborate the experiences of many thousands consumed. They are sheer testimony!
A relatively unknown part of Kelly’s practice is his work as a visual artist. Since the 1970s, he has consistently created self-portraits, in the form of drawings, paintings, photographs and, more recently, video. Studio time devoted to making these artworks is often a core part of the development of subsequent performance works. In the gallery exhibition, over 40 self-portraits are hung, salon-style, creating a portrait hall of Kelly’s myriad media, visages, expressions and phases. Together, they exemplify Kelly’s sensitivity as a draftsman and painter, while providing psychological and evolutionary paths through 30 years of dance, theater, and music.
John Kelly has performed at hundreds of crucible institutions, including nightclubs, concert halls, and museums that helped to forge a mass culture we now take for granted. Kelly’s club performances—expanding and constituting ideas of Drag and performance art—began in New York in the early 1980s at a number of groundbreaking venues. There was TriBeCa’s Mudd Club (1978-1983)—opened by art curator Diego Cortez and singer Anya Philips—featuring gender-neutral bathrooms and a gallery curated by Keith Haring. One could see performances of new wave and experimental music—not to mention rub shoulders with the likes of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Those associated with this place of innovation included Lou Reed, Johnny Thunders, David Byrne, Lydia Lunch, Jean-Michel Baquiat, Klaus Nomi, John Sex, the B-52s, DNA, and the Contortions. Then there was Danceteria (1980-1986), which was frequented by the up-and-coming Madonna, Sade, Keith Haring, and the Beastie Boys. The Pyramid Club on Avenue A—opened in 1979 and still extant—featured performances by Nirvana, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Lady Bunny, Lypsinka, Miss Understood, Wendy Wild, Taboo!, and Dean Johnson. Fondly, I remember performances there by Penny Arcade, RuPaul, and Hapi Phace. Kelly shared stages with this amazing array of colleagues during some of the darkest days of the epidemic: Like them, he brought forth an amalgam of conflicting perspectives from bitter wit to unmitigated joy.
Ah, and then there was the annual closure of the Wigstock festival (1986-2005) at which Kelly enjoyed notoriety as “Dagmar Onassis”—singing his version of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock.” How it started at Wigstock 1986, where one also found the performances of John Sex, Dean Johnson, and David Wojnarowicz. "By the time we got to Wigstock, we were several thousand falls..."
Kelly’s theatrical venues have included the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the American Academy (Rome), Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall, The Kitchen, Dance Theater Workshop, Central Park Summerstage, PS 122, Creative Time, St. Mark’s Church, The Joyce Theatre, Yale Repertory Theater, and the Spoleto Festival (Italy). His performances at museums have included the Walker Arts Center (Minneapolis), the Hammer Museum (Los Angeles), the Warhol Museum (Pittsburgh), Baltimore Art Museum, and the Tate Modern (London). He has been honored with numerous awards, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, Art Matters, and CalArts/Alpert Foundation. He is the recipient of an American Choreographer Award, a New York Dance and Performance Award (Bessie), and multiple Village Voice OBIE Awards for Performance. Residencies include the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Yaddo, and MacDowell.
The Mirror Stages: Self-Portraits, 1979–2009
@ Alexander Gray Associates
Through June 20, 2009
526 West 26th Street #1019, NYC 10001