The Self-Loathing Narcissist
Interview with Ryan Kelly
By Abby King
Ryan Kelly is, as the name of his most recent exhibition at Practice gallery suggests, a self-loathing narcissist. In his recent performance he concocted the holy trinity of self portraits: a piñata version of himself clad in a uniform of fluorescent shorts, baseball cap, and tube socks, an over sized papier-mâché head, with himself as moderator. Visitors took part in his self flagellation, wearing Kelly’s face instead of a blindfold and beating his piñata body with a baseball bat. Spectators watched real Ryan, assist a Ryan headed performer, beat up the artifice of the artist. This circle jerk is not really an indicator of Kelly's personality disorder, rather it shows his penchant for self-effacing humor.
To backtrack, I’ve known Ryan Kelly since I moved to Philadelphia in 2012. He was one of my first friends in the city. Our paths crossed not through artistic connections, academia, or networking, but through the cluster fuck that is Reading Terminal Market. Ryan worked at Old City Coffee alongside some of my closest comrades. Our friendship solidified because of the great Philadelphia tradition of Quizzo. I spent the first four years of my time here answering trivia questions Wednesday night and inevitably losing. The upside was the bartender took pity on us and rewarded our lack of sports knowledge with free shots.
It’s humorous to me that I know Ryan outside the artistic community we’re both entrenched in, perhaps because it never played too much part of our friendship. That’s not to say I haven't been following his creative endeavors. Rather, I understand his historical parodies because I know from Quizzo his vast knowledge of American Treaties, state capitals, and Presidential trivia. It’s an easy jump to see him transform himself into heroes such as Walt Whitman, Teddy Roosevelt, Robinson Crusoe, and Superman.
In the last few years Ryan has since left Philly for new opportunities in Ohio and Washington state. But can one ever really leave the city behind?
As mentioned previously, Ryan returned this month for an exhibition at Practice Gallery, a space he helped found. Since the 319 N 11th st building is still in limbo (with plans of reopening at the end of September) Kelly’s piñata beating was held in the 990 Spring Garden building.
I sat down with Ryan to address his perspective on the community he was apart of for 10 years and use some of his outside perspective to look at the ups and downs of being an artist in Philadelphia.
On a more positive note, we ended our conversation with one last question..
Abby: What do you miss the most?
Ryan: What I miss most, especially one whose body of work often involves performative artwork, I miss this community. I miss people that pool resources, provide opportunities for one another, and provide an audience, or participants. I could have easily done this piece that I did, at Practice Last night, in Bellingham Washington. But I think it probably would not have been received anywhere near the same.
R: I just miss the camaraderie and the willingness to participate. The willingness to come out on a First Friday and be like I’m here for some sort of aesthetic experience whatever that might be. If it's a serious thing or a frivolous thing I’m going to participate. And I love that about this city.
R: I’m not going to miss the fucking traffic.