These Formal Decisions Become Philosophical
A conversation with Thad Kellstadt by Adam Grossi
On June 23, 2015, I caught a ride with Thad Kellstadt from Chicago to Iowa City. He let me crash in his guest bedroom so that I could visit his studio in the morning and ask him some questions about his work. I recorded pieces of our conversation on the ride, and in his studio, and then I came home and sat on the recordings for a while. Slowly, the following emerged. I initiated this dialogue as both a great admirer of Thad’s paintings and as an old friend, eager to reconnect. I’m grateful to Thad for opening up about his process and allowing me to ponder him and his work in this public way.
Thad carefully unwraps a recent painting, two irregularly shaped wooden panels with an intricate matrix of bright geometry working its way across the surface. He’s a tall man, and his head almost reaches the low ceiling of this basement studio in Iowa City, his home of the past two years. “People ask me if I enjoy painting,” Thad offers, “and it’s not that I don’t, but enjoyment is also not what I’m looking for. I’m not looking for enjoyment, or escapism, in the sense of a hobby, where you want it take your mind off of other things… although that happens. But I’m much more present when I’m painting. It’s rare that I get to these moments when I’m NOT thinking. That’s an ideal. But it’s rare.” Not one to soapbox, he invites me into the contemplation. “Do you feel like you get lost when you’re working?”
I do get lost when I work, in both the luminous and miserable senses of that word. I understand the ideal he’s articulating, as it’s an ideal I share: to open up to the process of painting, to take the energy that’s normally bouncing around the intellectual brain and transfer it through sumptuous physical materials, riding the wave of semiconscious activity toward an unknown end. This is “being lost” as a nourishing and necessary reorientation to reality. But while working I also get lost in another sense: overwhelmed, confused, and disconnected from the impetus to persevere. That sense of existential despair is a difficult thing to navigate, but I’ve always found solace in the camaraderie of other painters. Thad and I got to know each other in Pittsburgh over a decade ago, and serendipity brought us to Chicago together when I came to graduate school alongside Thad’s partner, the experimental filmmaker Jesse Mclean. Our dialogue continued, and it was important to me. We would get coffee and commiserate over the odd, self-imposed struggle of making art, share sources of inspiration, and laugh at ourselves.
I saw Thad’s work before I met him. His painting-installations caught my eye in a group show at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. Repurposed skateboard decks, planks, and bottles became surfaces on which figures and landscapes merged and fought with angular geometry and color fields. Thad’s early paintings were a molten stew of sketches, collage, found objects, and paint, all carefully composed but with enough haphazardness to keep them from becoming too polished. A lifelong skater with a strong desire to speak through the language of the everyday, Thad’s early work might be seen as an extension of the Mission School aesthetic. However, Kellstadt’s work was never a snug fit with street art. He kept his compositions messy, and awkward, and they resonated with uncertainty. Perhaps for these reasons Thad has long had a special affinity for the work of Chris Johanson, whose drawings can be insightful and resonant without coveting those qualities: they can also be dumb, and irreverent, and apparently nonsensical. Thad’s paintings, though flirting with virtuosity, always maintained a sense of being provisional. His compositions were being put together as you looked at them, or falling apart in front of you, a sensation amplified by drips and masking, as though the paint itself was succumbing to the march of time, and the forms in front of you could only cohere for so long.
The urban density of Pittsburgh is also not Kellstadt’s native landscape. Thad is from Circleville, Ohio, population 13,000. The culture of the rural midwest has imprinted his work as powerfully as the northern Virginia suburbs have stamped my own. We have long mused about having a two-person show called The Suburbs and The Sticks. Thad’s visual language includes interminable highways, the epic flatness of farmland, and the poetics of ramshackle mysticism. Until his recent break from the figure, people have floated through his work, hippies and stoners and visionaries, road tripping or acid tripping, or something in between. They inhabit the uninhabitable architecture of his compositions like figures in an architect’s rendering, suggesting ways to exist in a landscape we can’t quite fathom.
Thad is voraciously interdisciplinary. In addition to a long stream of drawings and paintings, he has produced zines and books of poetry, made music independently and as a member of various bands, built sculptures and installations, and constructed experimental films and videos. As a teenager he learned about the expansive work of Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser, and Hundertwasser’s creative fluidity and resistance to standardization provided Kellstadt with a model of making that continues to inform his approach to this day.
I have always connected with Thad as a painter, finding gratification in both the presence of his works and also in considering their steady evolution. His latest work is not a departure from his early explorations, but it is refined and clarified to a striking degree. Abstraction, once the field that his figures and landscapes emerged from, has become primary, and representational forms have largely disappeared. The physical supports and craftsmanship have changed; salvaged wood planks are now methodically shaped panels. The inclusion of an airbrush into his toolkit has allowed for color fields and gradients to be smoother, and the presence of the hand, via brush stroke, more intermittent. These and other adjustments have accumulated to give me the impression that his work is more focused and confident. Maybe that’s just what happens when you stick with a discipline over a long period of time.
It was at his mesmerizing installation Lazy Dreams at Chicago’s Cabin Gallery in 2013 that I realized how much Thad’s work had shifted. The exhibition space, a tiny spare room in a Logan Square apartment, was covered from floor to ceiling in uniform grayscale brick patterns. The patterns not only spanned the walls, but absorbed the bare objects in the room as well: a shelf, primitive shapes suggesting a mirror, a painting, and leaning against the wall, a surfboard, all vibrating with variations of the same surface texture.
After seeing so much variance and dissonance in his exhibitions, it was a revelation to see a commitment to a solitary pattern. The objects shifted the orientation and direction of the bricks, coaxing hypnotic effects out of an otherwise banal surface. The efficiency and the clarity of the installation threw me, but it was no anomaly. The paintings that emerged in 2013 and 2014 reinforced the notion that Thad was actively stripping himself of visual baggage and carving out new boundaries to work within. On the road to Iowa City, we talked a bit about this.
Thad: Keeping within this body of work I’ve been making is helpful.
Adam: It helps keep a level head?
Yes, to keep things in perspective. Whereas making something you’ve never made before, and going right at it, it’s hard. You have no history with it. So much shit goes through your head while you’re painting, you know? The structure of this work helps me stay level. But there’s still that stress– you can’t avoid that. There’s still those moments where it’s problem solving, so much problem solving. It feels like everything is problem solving at times.
What do you mean?
In painting, you’re dealing with composition. Maybe it’s specific to the work I’ve been making recently — a lot of it engages with symmetry and geometry. I plan out the compositions a bit with a little drawing. First I’ll make the shape [the panel], and then were does it go from there? I will literally run into a wall. Which points will I work off of? Which points will connect? If this connects, what’s the next step?
And that’s exciting; I love problem solving. So ‘stress’ is not the best word, although it’s close. It’s almost like you have to trick yourself. There’s so much of that. This was more important in the past; now, I’ll make a move that I know that I’ll paint over. I’m much more economical about it, because it costs money and time, but a lot of times I have to paint a placeholder.
I use a lot of blue tape to mask things off. There will be times when it would be much easier to leave the tape on, but I’ll take it off so I can see how the painting is developing.
I can’t get over the tape in the composition — it’s so distracting. I have to take it off, even though it would be much easier to leave it and continue working, rather than taking it all off, looking at the painting and thinking about it, and then putting all the tape back in the exact same place.
Right. You can’t problem solve with the tape obscuring part of the problem.
Yeah. And you would think a painter would be able to use their imagination and get past this.
I can definitely relate to that. Often I treat the early stages of a painting really preciously, just because I like how they look in a general aesthetic way. Like, paint is immediately beautiful. I have a tendency to get really delicate far earlier in the process than I probably should. And for my own psyche, being delicate is easier than being heavy-handed. But the heavy-handedness is really what helps progress the painting. It has to happen at some point.
Yes. I guess that’s what I meant by “tricking yourself.” I go about things the same way. I start preciously, usually very small. If I didn’t know any better, and a lot of times I don’t, I’ll start in one little corner and just get super detailed, like I’m working on some gridded Norman Rockwell painting. As though the parts can come together bit by bit. But that’s not at all how my paintings work.
Certain amounts of painting are sacrificial for the process.
Saying to myself, “I’m going to do some things” with some part of my mind being aware that they will not exist later on. But they have to happen. It’s like once you finish a painting, and you start a new one, you want it to be immediately finished. You’re going in with the memory of having finished a painting, and you’re anxious to get there. You sort of forget that there’s this weird sedimentary buildup of things. Even when ideas are relatively clear.
Building is what I think of. It’s about building something.
Yeah. Can we talk about the dropout of representation? I mean, in a sense, these paintings are representational, because they are describing forms that are object-like. But I don’t know at what point you started consciously removing deliberately recognizable “things” from your paintings.
I was pushing myself towards it for a long time, but it happened about two years ago. I had this show and I was like, well, I’m not going to make any representational work. I think there was one that was a face. Maybe. I was just over it, you know? It just felt like too much. (Thad unwraps a painting.) This is the first piece that didn’t have any representational elements in it. It felt like a drop. Like a jump. I was working really fast.
You weren’t thinking about it too much.
Yes, it just happened. The shapes began to inform the composition. It was a far cry from where I’d been before. It happened very naturally. I’d been moving away from representational work, but this was a moment where I thought, I’m going to move away from this for a long time.
Moving to Chicago from Pittsburgh, I remember being really stressed out, not knowing what I was going to do, not knowing where the painting was going. And that’s when I started making the brick paintings. That was very meditative.
Oh, yeah. I have one of the brick pieces. It’s gorgeous.
I still have these ideas for representational paintings that I’d like to make. I just think it’s good to be disciplined, to have a few parameters, helps me a lot, it frees me up. That’s just me.
When you have an idea that falls outside of the parameters, do you document it? Is it a sketch?
I don’t even sketch it, it’s just up in my head. A lot of it is influenced by something I see, someone else’s work, it sparks an idea. But I just think, maybe in the future, it will be there. But also, as far as ideas, if I have one, I try to bring it within the parameters of this body of work. As much as I can.
Ah. Yeah, you welcome the idea into this house. Here’s some tea, what can we do for you?
That’s a good way to look at it. But I feel good just working. It’s relieving, you know? Though it’s still stressful at times. I get just as stressed as I did before. Or, the same anxious, tortured joy you get from working, you know?
When it’s not going well in here, it still feels like the floor drops out?
Yeah. But there’s always a raft. There’s always an escape. I know that I can’t do this, and I know that I can do this. And, you know, they’re just paintings. But when you’re working on them, it’s completely emotional.
I know what you’re saying. It can feel so intense in the studio. And it probably looks crazy from the outside.
Yeah, right? Because how could you get that emotional about, like, a line?
Why are you elated about this but destroyed, ruined about this?
It’s just the way it is. Totally.
The masking is time consuming. But very rewarding. Half of the idea for a painting will emerge from sketchbooks. The other half makes itself up as I’m working. He gestures over the surface of a painting. Once this is up and this is up and this is up, then these two define themselves. So it’s almost like checkers, in that sense.
It’s interesting, the masking as a form of painting. You use that like people would use brush strokes. I can see there are certain masked shapes that are painted over. That’s maybe what you were talking about — that you do things, even though you know you’re going to go over them?
Yeah. Like here, that might have been a mistake, the masking pulling the paint off when I remove the tape. But with this [gesturing], that’s definitely realizing “oh yeah, this doesn’t work” … so I could avoid it, but, I dunno, I remember we talked a long time ago about texture. I’ve totally changed. I wouldn’t want surface in this one:
Yeah, there’s a purity of surface that is important there.
Even that little dot that would be fine here, it’s gotta be clean. This is another thing where I fucked up the mask and I was like nooooo. This line too.
I can see that. The mistakes destabilize the forms a little bit. It makes their relationship with the background more complex.
Yeah. It brings out the flatness. Another dimension. I like that the shadows can be wrong… two light references on one object. Or here, where there’s no shadow. It makes the eye ask is this floating?
The shadow disappears when it hits that wall — it makes the wall feel like it’s atmosphere rather than a wall.
Right. And then also, from a composition standpoint, I thought that would work well, you know? It’s cool that things like this happen: these formal decisions become philosophical. They start as practical moves, or a compositional decision…
But because the form is an architecture, and it is speaking to space, the meaning of the structure changes, even though you’re not necessarily obsessing over what the structure means. You’re absorbed in the forms.
Yeah. Where this becomes an atmosphere, it’s in part due to the fact that extending the shadow wouldn’t work well with the larger composition.
(Thad unwraps a painting.)
Maybe you haven’t seen this guy.
This took a while. I probably made the panel and thought “oh, this won’t take long.” But there was some shape I saw in nature, somehow this is inspired by something that I saw. The side of a building where it was buffed, or some bit of plywood was leaning…
The composition sort of went in circles, like a dog chasing its tail. One part would be finished or somewhat finished, and then I have to think ok, which angle do I want to work on? Because one of the reasons I make these shapes is because you can celebrate the angles, how they come together and interact. There are actually quite a few different angles that can interrupt each other. When they come together, I don’t want to call it chaotic…
Yeah, you’re setting up this dissonance by creating angles that, if you look at them quickly, appear to be symmetrical or parallel, they might be mirrors of each other, but the irregularity of them creates these shifts and tension that lets your eye move around.
Initially, looking at it, you might think, “oh, triangles” — yet they’re not quite triangles. But the eye causes everything to come together, become harmonious, almost mathematically. I don’t know, I did horribly in math as a kid. I think this is revenge, or my own way of learning math…
Yeah, that this triangle doesn’t get the pleasure of continuing its line. It disrupts the expectation of intersection.
Yeah, there’s no point there. Exactly.
You mentioned earlier in the car, the palette changing, the brightness of the palette possibly being a semi-conscious response to the fact that your freelance work as a faux-finisher and oil painter is so dark. Do you think there are other influences making the work bright?
I used to think, well, why wouldn’t you use bright colors? I just enjoy how strong they are, how musical they are. They create waves.
I saw this painting’s outer shape a long time ago, and I drew it on paper; I want to say it was plywood at a construction site, when I was in Chicago. It was that long ago that I took note of this shape. And it probably got morphed along the way.
One of the things I noticed yesterday and today, just hanging out with you, I feel like I’m looking at things and thinking “oh, that seems like it could be a shape in one of your paintings.” I don’t think about that in normal life.
Oh, that’s interesting. Cool.
I wonder if that’s how it is for you? That you look around and shapes attract you, and that’s part of the process of sketching? Locating shapes?
Definitely. I hate to talk about skateboarding anymore, you know? Just because it seems like a crutch or something — but I wonder if it comes from that mindset: constantly looking for things and thinking about them…
About how you might move across surfaces on the board?
Yeah, even as a kid, this was a thought I had often: if the world ends, some things would fall, and then you could skate them.
It’s that Cold War bomb thing, you know?
Yeah, there’s the upside!
Like, that bank downtown, it has that curve on the side, and if it falls over…
No school after the end of the world, so plenty of time to skate.
But yeah, skating definitely had an effect on how I look at things. Possibilities. I think about the paintings in a similar way, in that if they are architecture, how do you respond to them? Almost in a three-dimensional sense. How could you ride that shape? How could you get from this point to that point? How could it be done?
I turn around and look back at Instant Memorabilia, with its compartments.
Do you feel like this relates to the objects that are contained within each of these rooms in Instant Memorabilia? Because this is a different compositional setup, right? Is that at all related here? How’s the thought process different in this kind of framework?
Instant Memorabilia, to me, is like a cabinet of curiosities. It relates to my childhood, when I would make these little drawings on a piece of paper. He starts drawing to show me. I’d make a drawing sheet of shoe guns or something…
This shoe would have a flame thrower on the bottom… and it’d be Nike… and it would have a walkie talkie section. Then this shoe would have a fan on the back. And I’d make grids of these things. And there’d be guns too. Literally, an old GE fan… look, it’s a wind gun!
This shoe? Probably like a ruse mixed with pumps? Every sort of selling point of the shoe would be considered.
I love that. I’m glad you told me that.
I think those were the most fulfilling things to draw as a kid. I fucking loved it. So I think this way of constructing a painting is an extension of it. It’s like this is someone’s collection of futuristic objects. He points to one of the cabinets. That’s why I love that this one is floating. It’s really child-like.
And it sort of, it doesn’t really relate. When I’m making it I see the relation to other works, but it sort of is like its own thing. I mean, you were talking about the text paintings last night and how they are similar.
Yeah, this is a construct that you’re working with.
Once in a while, I’ll make one of these paintings. It’s odd to me that I make these. I don’t know where it came from. One day I thought, “oh, I’ll make a shelf painting.” A collection of things that I think would be really interesting. And it would be a way to fulfill that childhood need to design things, and to riff off of ideas that build on each other. They’re really enjoyable to make.
I’d probably like to make sculpture, so it’s probably that as well — I’d love to actually make these objects. And having fun, paying homage to the Surrealists. I think of Rene Magritte with this.
The blue, it almost looks like a sky palette. With a churro.
[Laughing] Right? Exactly. I go through things like that. I’ll think,oh, this is a melted Wiffle ball on top of an orange.
Yeah! So, when you think about what you were doing as a kid, with issues [laughs], here’s something playful, but it’s also mental training, right? You’re expanding your perception. You’re creating a brain teaser that doesn’t really have rules.
Yeah. How far can you take this idea? How far can you take something without losing its slight connection to reality, where some part of it still makes sense?
Thad Kellstadt currently lives and works in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. For more information visit thadkellstadt.com.
This article was originally published on Adam Grossi’s website here. Thanks to Adam and Thad for being so generous and sharing their work with Acid Rain.