“NO GUNS, NO DRUGS, NO SEX, JUST TRUTH”
Eight words on the homepage of Kelly Breedlove’s website foretell what visitors can expect. And the photo-based, mixed-media artist lives up to that promise in his debut solo show, Witness Marks, which opened at the Westside’s Hathaway gallery on September 23 and runs through November 4.
The exhibition borrows its title from an engineering term used to describe punch marks or scratches left inside a mechanism that leaves evidence of how the parts wear on each other and leave marks over time. Given Breedlove’s hard science background (Breedlove received a bachelor of science from Georgia Tech in ’89), viewers might conclude that his expression as an artist is left-brain driven. But they’d be wrong. In fact, witness marks are analogous to what remains on Breedlove’s heart and psyche following a childhood that was punctuated by loneliness, abandonment and betrayal at the hands of his handsome, charismatic father who was physically absent much of the time, and emotionally unavailable even when proximate to his son.
Breedlove explores and reconciles these themes, and more, in large-scale encaustic canvases that are as soulful as they are soul-bearing.
“Kelly’s personal story is so rich and complicated that it was just a matter of him opening up about who he was, and then finding his way to deliver those stories,” says Michael David, a painter, curator and Breedlove’s former instructor in master classes on encaustic painting. “He’s dealing with his father and mother — who is at the heart of what he did and does — telling stories that are universal through a very specific lens of an era in the South.”
The facts of Breedlove’s upbringing in rural Georgia, on the heels of desegregation, could make for the kind of dramatic opening scene in a biopic that would rightfully leave moviegoers wondering what was fact and what was fiction.
The artist still regards his life in terms of before & after — the line of demarcation being the start of middle school when his parents divorced. Before the split, he remembers the bimonthly excitement of horse trading at The Pony Express — a livestock auction barn his dad owned south of Covington, Georgia.
The cowboys in that arena were larger-than-life figures Breedlove regarded as superheroes. Three prototypes of these hyper-masculine men who knew how to handle horses, and had the proper appurtenances to convey that fact, dominate one of the most visually arresting pieces in the collection, titled Gods and Monsters.
“This is still painful to talk about, but as I got older I came to see how the men I once idolized were actually ignoring their families, cheating on their wives and living selfishly the entire time,” says Breedlove. “My dad’s not in this particular picture, but he was the ringleader. They were all gods to me, but they were simultaneously monsters.”
Breedlove defaced the canvas with a series of mark-making techniques — using sloppy splashes of pink paint, collaging of material elements, fine-tuning adjustments in photoshop and hastening the physical deconstruction and deterioration of the photograph itself — to shift the visual focus. By layering his adult perspective over that of the child’s innocent, nonjudgmental gaze, he evokes certain moods, reveals hidden meaning and manages to reconnect with the subject matter on a more informed plane.
Shortly after his parents separated, Breedlove’s father opened a horse meat processing plant for human consumption. (The practice has since been outlawed in the United States, but the market for Equine remains robust in parts of Europe and Central Asia.) Starting at the age of 12, Breedlove spent the first of two consecutive summer vacations standing in the back corner of a killing room floor where horses were slaughtered, degloved and gutted in his presence. “Somebody would take out the heart and spleen and hand it to me,” says Breedlove. “I would slice it open, fillet it out, wash it off, brand it with a USDA brand, put it on a hook and push the hook to the next station.”
The visual of a pint-sized child carrying out such gruesome responsibilities — while wearing an adult-sized lab coat, and sloshing around in rubber boots fit for someone twice his age — is nothing short of Dickensian. But Breedlove recalls these details in the matter-of-fact tone of someone who learned to normalize the abhorrent early on. The resulting diptych, titled Food for Thought, tells the story.
Fairy Tales are Full of Shit is an homage to Breedlove’s mother Judy. She was a constant source of love and tenderness in her son’s life. As a young girl growing up in Midtown Atlanta, Judy dreamed of seeing the world as a flight attendant for Delta Airlines. By the time she was 21, however, she was the married mother to a toddler girl and living in the suburbs.
“I always felt that my mom was emotionally abandoned by my dad, which she was, even while they were married,” says Breedlove. “When he moved out, I was at the developmental stage of understanding how people affect each other, and felt like it was my responsibility to pick up the slack.” It was a tall order for such slender shoulders, but the preternatural empath rose to the challenge and took care of his mother in sickness and health until they were parted by her death nearly three years ago.
When she was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2014, all four of Judy’s children had made arrangements for her doctors to tell them first so they could break the news to their mother away from the hospital and in the calmest, most loving atmosphere possible. They chose to do it on her front porch at home, where she was surrounded by several bird feeders. While the children spoke to their mother, as if on cue, scores of hummingbirds converged and hovered around the matriarch’s face. Ever since, the tiny birds have symbolized Judy’s steadfast love for her children, and Breedlove’s black panel with a swarm of blue hummingbirds on one corner honors that story.
The luminosity of his encaustic panels notwithstanding, there is no getting around the fast, aggressive physicality required of Breedlove to render the translucent quality that first attracted him to the art form. Scabs and bruises scar his fingertips, forearms and elbows, and attest to his painstaking process of applying layers here, scraping back others there and attacking the surface with everything from brushes to blowtorches.
Private and introspective by nature, Witness Marks has literally and figuratively taken Breedlove far beyond his comfort zone. But, he says, “it feels like an unburdening.”
One of the first things that stood out to David upon meeting Breedlove six years ago was “his genuineness, authenticity, and emotional openness, all of which are crucial in an artist.” And the same holds true as he works to redefine his past in order to move forward on his own terms.
“I have never seen anybody handle [adversity] as beautifully and heroically as Kelly has,” says David. “He’s a really good, solid, open, loving human being. He’s someone I call a friend. Without knowing the specifics of his story, you can see it in his canvases.”