Keltie Ferris enchants with idiosyncratic abstractions

Abstract painter Keltie Ferris spoke at Vassar on Oct. 7 as part of the Clafin Lecture Series. Like her art, her storytelling was unconventional, yet beautiful and purposeful. Abby Tarwater/The Miscellany News

Bearsville-based artist Keltie Ferris encourages conversations that raise questions about her work and her process, saying, “a little derailing is okay.” Ferris was invited to campus Monday, Oct. 7, as part of the Claflin Lecture Series. When she arrived, she invited us to lose ourselves in her abstractions, an adventure that require our minds to fill themselves with shapes and thick layers of color. Her storytelling is similar to the art itself: unconventional, beautiful, purposeful puzzles that gradually fit together.

Ferris compares her work to a harmony that shifts into a sense of choppiness. Her latest work feels sonic, with the fullness of multiple dimensions, along with horizontal and vertical erasures that disrupt these effects. Lately, Ferris has been evoking Mondrian-esque work, alluding to the fields of reds, yellows and blues separated by a bold, black line found in his abstractions.

Ferris’ new paintings integrate shapes popping out of the canvas using the age-old practice of impasto (“to paste”). They’re taking on a three-dimensional quality that bends toward sculptural, further defying categorization. To me, they resemble tiles on my bathroom wall, but this doesn’t diminish or stylize the work whatsoever. It reminds me of an object I’m familiar with—but the viewer next to me could have a totally different interpretation of the faux-ceramic squares. Understanding Ferris’ art is a matter of seeing and unseeing.

Projecting one of her near-elephantine works, Ferris zoomed into the picture of her painting to the point that we could better see the astounding detail of soulful, sometimes minute, marks on a towering canvas. “It looks like I’m trying to be Rembrandt,” she joked, comparing the master painter’s skills with her own. Examining Keltis’ work up close provides the purest window to view the immense care involved in the art-making, thus allowing viewers to be transported, at least for a minute, inside the artist’s saturated universe.

Part of Ferris’ brave, compositional intent shines with her ability to push forward and pull back pieces of space. My eyes go in and out, up and around the canvas. I don’t know whether I’m looking at one image or a thousand little ones, overlapping each other, pushing through a crowd as hectic as the ones at your local mall’s Black Friday sale. But the viewer could interpret her work as something much smaller than that, like a computer chip excavated from its hardware skeleton. Although we are all looking at the same work, our individual processes of seeing it, sitting with it and feeling with it are all unique.

Ferris noted that a critic once called one of her works a cityscape seen from a birdseye view, instead of the typical skyline perspective. But the artist who created the painting in question, who developed the idea in her head before translating it onto canvas, didn’t imagine the glowing yellow as dots of skyscrapers at all. It seems like comparing Keltis’ work to physical, relatable constructions misses the point. Yet, she invites these varied interpretations and doesn’t try to control them.

Ferris also spoke about the joy of painting on canvas; it’s like it’s a religion that loves you back. But this left me wondering whether she would ever take her work out of the gallery, move away from the comfort of blank slate and into the public domain. Although her work is rightfully categorized as fine art, I’m wondering if this distinction should even exist. Ferris’ work taps into realms of street art that reject the stifling space of the auction, but doesn’t fully embrace these realms as ones in which her own art and legacy could rest.

I, for one, certainly wouldn’t complain if Ferris painted one of her abstract worlds against the bricks, sidewalks, sky and birds outside my window.

To me, Ferris’ art feels like a massive doodle given enough blood supply to run, swirl and jump at color’s demand. She could speak about the process of her abstractions that highlight the beauty of spray paint all night, but she instead encouraged viewers to go check out a new panting she loaned to Vassar’s very own Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. So new, in fact, it hadn’t fully dried.

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