A Painter's Life

According to Phil Kelly, it's "absurd that all the swimming pools in the world are blue." Tacked to the wall of his Colonia Cuauhtemoc studio is a design scheme to remedy that: nudes in yellow and black.

Image:Luz Montero

Artist Phil Kelly

Kelly paints oil canvasses with his hands and wipes them off on a wall in the back hallway. Piles of newspapers and magazines, jugs of turpentine and linseed oil, and a table covered in Victoria bottle caps, paint tubes, and cardboard boxes stuffed with photos and clippings spill over the room. His CD collection is a heap of discs and cases. The walls are papered with his work. A shower curtain hangs over the window that looks out to Circuito Interior.

The chaos is so artful, such a beautiful mess, that when he says, "I really should tidy the place up sometime," and then pops open a Victoria, you can't believe that he ever would.

Born in Ireland and raised in England, Kelly first came to Mexico in 1982. He lived above a "knicker shop" and taught English at a company located on the road to Toluca. He would wake up at 5 am to cross the city on the bus, edge along the side of the carretera, and arrive by 7.

His city scenes radiate the hecticness of the ordinary: jumbled buildings, blurred crowds, streaming traffic, decaying footbridges. "You make a select poetry out of the everyday," he says.

Kelly cooks (the day after this interview he was going to make roast beef for Nick McCarthy, the bass player for the group Franz Ferdinand), listens to jazz, works in the studio seven days a week, and likes it when other people smoke—even though he himself does not. He is married to Ruth Munguia, has two daughters, and became a Mexican citizen in 1999.

Why did you come here?

I tossed a coin ... I thought if I came here I could either walk north or south and if I didn't find anything on the way I could jump off at the end.

I came here and I had, like, $50 and I spent half of it on a night in the hotel looking through the yellow pages for English schools, and then like the third one that I came across, they said "well, we might have some work and we have somebody that wants to share an apartment."

What was the other side of the coin toss?

Paris ... I spoke a little French, and you know the silly tradition about Paris and painters.

How did you get here?

I flew to Huron, South Dakota.

From?

London. I had a friend there... I'd go out and try and draw, but there's nothing to draw in Huron, South Dakota... I used to go down there and go draw the rail yards. And I did a whole sort of series of paintings about street corners, about the sort of vocabulary of asphalt. Yellow lines and drains—because there's nothing else to draw.

Did you ever think you'd be able to survive off the painting?

Everybody always told me it was impossible... It doesn't actually solve anything, but it helps [the depression]... I have a whole wall out there of, like, sayings to try and alleviate my depression. It doesn't solve anything, but it helps. It's the only thing I've ever found that helps.

In your own work is there, above all, a passion that you have for cities, or is it Mexico City in particular?

If I go somewhere else I draw or paint wherever I go. In general it's a fascination for the movement and the poetry.

What do you think distinguishes the urbanscape of México City from other cities?

It's sort of vibrancy. I spend hours out on that balcony, watching... there always seem to be one element, or little element, that makes you startled. I think Mexico City is its startlingness. It's a bit like the similar thing that Henry Miller had with Paris, accidents and incidents of everyday life.

I used to read books and books and books and books, and then I came to Mexico and I almost stopped reading because you read the streets. You don't actually have to get books. So most of the paintings are about reading the streets. Like "voto por voto."

Do you start your paintings by drawing them first?

There's no specific way, but generally the idea to start with is just to get rid of the white canvas. Sometimes I stain it with whatever's around, sometimes I make some marks ... there's no actual rules. I think I'm actually against rules in general.

Do you think that living in Mexico suits a person who's against rules in general?

I think in Mexico here we're in favor of inventiveness rather than rules. The whole thing is a bit like it's improvisation, and that's what's so wonderful about jazz, you know? It's based on the improvisation.