We would not be the first to note that Kelsey Brookes' artistic career did not follow the most traditional path. While attending university, he studied biology instead of painting and drawing, and not until practicing as a microbiologist for a few years and moving to San Diego did Brookes begin his career as a painter. In his early works, his subject matter was much more figurative and his departure from science was much more abrupt, but as he has moved towards abstraction, his fascination with science has begun to emerge in his art. We stopped by Quint Contemporary Art to see Brookes' new solo show and discuss this transition, which seems to be moving closer to the core of the artist's passions, and judging by the fact that the show sold out, he's doing something right.
Max Karnig: So you've been working on this series for seven months?
Kelsey Brookes: Between six and seven. It's hard because I've been working on other projects, but the time fully dedicated to this show is more like six months.
MXK: I read you were finally incorporating a bit of your past career in science into this body of work. Can you talk about that a bit?
KB: Sure. So in school I studied biology. That was my major, and I graduated with a degree in biology with an emphasis on microbiology. I went to work. I got a fellowship right out of college and worked for the Center for Disease Control. We were working on arboviruses. We were tracking different arboviruses through the environment. At the time it was West Nile. We were tracking West Nile as it was moving west from the east coast. So I did that for a while and then I got a job out here in San Diego at a biotech company doing research, focusing on HIV.
But then I stopped doing all of that to focus on art.
MXK: I know your earlier work didn't address your past as a microbiologist. I thought this recent incorporation was really interesting.
KB: For me too! I was doing figurative work with animals and people and hybrids of the two. Then I decided i'm done with this and I want to move more towards abstraction. I wanted to explore different things. Once I moved into the abstract realm, then science became a presence because it's still in my head constantly. That's what I'm interested in. That's what I focus on. Those are the books that I read. The blogs that I check out are all still science stuff. That all emerged because of the loosening of the format of the art and it emerged into stuff like this.
MXK: Is there one painting you find particularly interesting right now?
KB: Well we can start with this one right here because it's in front of us (pointing to the large canvas pictured above titled Mescaline).
So this painting is a molecular line diagram. You've probably seen them before. So if you can imagine each one of these dots, instead of being a dot, imagine it being connected in a benzine ring.
This is the actual lay out of the molecule. Each one of these is an atom. That's a carbon, that's a carbon, that's a carbon. Those two are hydrogens. So this is mescaline. This is the molecular compound of mescaline.
MXK: Within this general structure of the molecule there are many intricate lines expanding from each atom. Can you talk about that?
KB: The proximity of each one of these atoms to one another is represented on the line drawings. The distance between this carbon to this hydrogen is accurate to scale. You don't know exactly where an electron is or exactly where an atom is at any one time.
This is how it is represented because this is how it exists in nature. The distance between atoms is the distance between atoms in nature, but this is on a massive scale.
For each one of the atoms, i developed this radiating pattern. I was doing the circles you can see up front (indicating the many small-scale paintings pictured at the very top of this article). I was like, "Oh let's make each one of those an atom." The way they interact with each other is really interesting here. These lines are radiating and meet up in all these different ways.
MXK: In your previous work, the representational quality of the paintings was more apparent, but these paintings are also representational despite their more abstracted imagery.
KB: It's conceptually rooted, but they are essentially abstract paintings.
MXK: I know that you spend a lot of time surfing, does that influence your work in any way?
KB: A lot of people mention, and I agree with them, that these lines are so fluid and they form around each other. For me when i'm surfing, when i'm standing up on a wave, i'm not thinking really let's do a turn or let's do this. I'm thinking let's flow. Let's go where the wave takes me and flow. It's the same idea where this line flows and meanders. That's what I would like my surfing to look like too. That's generally my outlook on life is. Just flow with it. Don't struggle so hard.
MXK: So there are other paintings that are less colorful and monochromatic. They aren't as vibrant.
KB: So these are done the same way the super colorful ones are. This one was done to see how it feels to just get the pattern out of it. So when you subtract the color, this is what you get. For me it flows much more and creates patterns that are moving up and down.
MXK: These feel more tactile and sensual and less heavily visual.
KB: Yeah these are a lot more subtle and a lot more surface. You pay attention to the surface a lot more and you pay more attention to the line, which I like.
MXK: So now that you have these done, what's next?
KB: I'm having a lot of fun doing these molecules. This show is all about the psychedelic experience, hallucinations, and stuff like that. I can see moving from there into designer drugs and different psychoactive drugs, prozac and stuff like that. To me this is colorful because that type of molecule suggests a colorful palette. Where those psycho-therapeutics suggest a minimal palette, subtle and simple.
MXK: These paintings have many different ways they can grow and expand into different types of experiences.
KB: With as many molecules as there are in the world, right?
Kelsey Brookes' solo show Serotonin; Happiness and Spiritual States is on view at Quint Contemporary Art in San Diego until December 29th.
See more photos of the artwork and opening reception here.