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Jay Kelly finds the divine in the details

Collage artist creates photorealistic works from vintage magazines and books

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When collage artist Jay Kelly tells people what he does for a living, it typically comes with a qualifier or two.

"When I meet with someone and they want to know what kind of work I make, I say collage and then always follow that by explaining it's figurative and I create photorealistic images from books and magazines. And then they're intrigued," says the 42-year-old.

Represented locally by the Whistler Contemporary Gallery in the Four Seasons' lower lobby, the gallery will be hosting a collection of Kelly's work next Thursday, Dec. 28 from 4 to 8 p.m.

The Venice, Calif.-based artist often has to contend with the "anybody-can-do-that perception" of collage. That is, until they see one of his meticulously crafted, hyper-realistic works up close.

"I love for people to look at a piece from across the room, see a complete, almost photorealistic image, and then as they get closer, they see these little bits of paper, little bits of type," Kelly says.

"If you're going to be a collage artist, you better be making something that doesn't look like a second grader made it."

In his college years, Kelly, who has a sociology degree from UCLA, didn't realize art could be a profitable career choice. After dabbling in graphic design, he began to experiment with different mediums, using collage as a base that he would then paint over top of.

"I took a series of photos — this was way back when we used film in cameras — and right around the 12th or 13th shot, I could see this image coming together through collage and I thought, 'Why am I bothering with paint?'"

Kelly's process is a labour-intensive one — it can take 60 hours or more, on average, to complete a four- by five-foot piece, he says. Always scanning for inspiration, Kelly will often scour back issues of Vogue and French fashion magazines for the perfect image to serve as a foundation. A Photoshop wizard, he "never finds an image that is perfect as is," and will often "Frankenstein" an image together from multiple sources. From there, he likes to incorporate scraps of text that often reveal a deeper meaning — whether intentional or not. (Kelly even embeds the title of each piece into the image itself, offering a little bit of word-search fun for viewers.)

"Looking through it, you can read this little narrative that's formed. But a lot of times, it's just happens. It's almost like the story writes itself," explains Kelly. "I like the randomness, I like the chance. I call it controlled chaos."

Kelly's layered, highly tactile work is a welcome breath of fresh air in an era when media is increasingly consumed digitally.

"I love art that has craft, that has attention to detail, that has a soul to it," he says. "Today, with everything being digital and on a screen — here one day and gone the next — it's nice to create something tangible."

A rising star on the North American art scene, Kelly's work can be found in galleries and hotels across the continent, as well as in numerous TV and film productions, including the 2001 cult classic, Donnie Darko.

For more information, visit whistlerart.com.

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