Artist Spotlight: John Kelly, Haunting Portraiture



John Kelly’s paintings are haunting.

A woman by a window looks at a bird. A woman looks out from under white drapery. A woman looks in the mirror. Within each frame, he masterfully captures a psychological drama.

As his paintings offer his figures an intricate interiority, they simultaneously comment on the ever-changing relationship between viewer and model.

“Seeing a figure painted in a way that people can recognize easily creates an intimacy and a challenge that is visceral,” says Kelly.

He opens up a conversation about gazes. Some of his models meet the gaze of the viewers, while others do not. In his Mirror series, his paintings seem to silently ask, “Why are you looking at me?” or “Have you directed this same gaze to yourself?”

“By placing a human being in space, we tell a story about ourselves, and the people around us, our fantasies, our obsessions, our hopes, dreams, nightmares,” he says. “It is the point at which everything that makes us human starts.”



Kelly is fascinated by paint’s immortal and preserving qualities. With each painting, a near-ghostly essence of that person is alive, imprinted in the paint.

For Kelly, the human body is art’s most fundamental unit; it is the foundation for humanity.

He works with his models over long periods of time, building lasting friendships. By painting models in different contexts he invokes different feelings beyond the space of public life. This emotional space is separate from the outside world. 

Kelly’s technique harkens to the past. His old-world oil techniques of alla prima and glazing keep the immediacy and intimacy during a sitting, recreating the longstanding tradition of figure painting.



“I envision a period where artists can use, for example, 17th century painting techniques to comment on changing sexual roles in the 21st century, or abstract expressionist techniques to create academic genre paintings. With new technologies, the tools that artists can employ are endless,” prognosticates Kelly.

His earlier work was mostly influenced by Abstract and German Expressionists. But, everything changed after he saw the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1983 retrospective exhibition on Balthus (1908-2001)—the 20th century Polish-French modern artist. This marked the shift from abstraction to his signature figurative work.


Vintage John Kelly in his New York City studio. 

Kelly, Paris-born and New York-raised, began painting and drawing in his early childhood. He studied at the School of Visual Arts in the 1980’s. More recently, he was part of the East Village Arts Scene shown at 301 Houston Street Gallery and Ground Zero.

His current studio is in Los Angeles at the Hawthorne Arts Complex. He lives in L.A. with his wife and two children and works as a freelance Graphic Designer and Illustrator.

See more of John Kelly’s art on UGallery, and be sure to follow him on Instagram and Facebook.