Kelly McKernan Talks The Wonder Women of “Femme Fatale”

0 Comments 11 August 2016

kelly mckernan

Nashville-based painter Kelly McKernan discusses the powerful pop culture women of her new show “Femme Fatale,” currently on display at Gallery 1988.

By Daniel Barron


Nashville-based painter Kelly McKernan has received national acclaim for her ornate Mucha-inspired explorations into feminine identity. These surreal, dreamlike figures on journeys of self-discovery have taken McKernan on her own exciting pathways, from San Francisco’s popular Spoke Art gallery to Philly’s Arch Enemy Arts space and Gallery 1988 in Los Angeles. She has illustrated album covers, is a member of the PRISMA Artist Collective, and gives online tutorials on painting techniques.

Now her creative explorations have taken her back to Gallery 1988 for her first solo exhibition at the space, “Femme Fatale,” which will be on display at their East location until August 20th. In advance of the show,McKernan spoke with Yay! LA about her interest in pop culture art, badass women in fiction, and the best way to get an art education.


kelly mckernan art


Tell me about the connective theme behind your new series, “Femme Fatale.”

Gallery 1988 specializes in pop culture-related art. I’ve been working with them for four years now and I had thought that at some point I wanted to do a solo show with them. I pitched the idea of doing this series of works inspired by femme fatale characters in contemporary pop culture. They were totally onboard. I probably came up with a list of about thirty subjects that I wanted to interpret and in the end I narrowed it down to fifteen paintings.

There is sort of a broad scope of contemporary femme fatale characters [in the show]. My criteria was basically “A badass female that can use her feminine wiles but don’t depend on them. They know their worth and kick ass.” I wanted to cover the whole gamut of media, so I pulled from comics, indie comics as well as mainstream titles. There are characters from mainstream movies and some lesser-known movies and television shows.

It’s been a lot of fun. I hope that I can continue working on the series a bit, because I have so many other ideas that I either didn’t have time for or just didn’t fit as a whole with the rest of the show.


kelly mckernan art


There are certainly some recognizable icons like Pris from Blade Runner, but also a character from Saga, which is a well-regarded indie comic. Can you identify what didn’t make the cut?
Let me find my sketchbook. [Brings it out.] Do you know the film Hana?
The one with Saoirse Ronan? I love it.
Yeah. I had a piece planned and everything and I just ran out of time. It didn’t end up fitting in. I wanted to do Six from Battlestar Galactica, Chell from Portal, Faye Valentine from Cowboy Bebop…the list just goes on and on. But those were the ones that came the closest to making it into the show.


kelly mckernan art


Has pop culture-inspired art been a consistent interest for you?

My transition into pop culture art has everything to do with Gallery 1988, because the themes behind their shows are so interesting and it’s frankly just inspiring to be a part of. And it is definitely self-serving, because I can go, “Oh, I love this thing! I’ve always wanted to do a painting of this character that I love, and this is a great excuse because it’s for a gallery and stuff.”

Outside of the pop culture art gallery scene fan art doesn’t get much respect, I guess you would say, because you end up calling it “fan art,” which makes it sound like some kind of rip-off. When a work is “inspired” by a property and shown in a gallery I think it gets a little bit more respect.


kelly mckernan art


Gallery 1988 also exhibits a lot of artists who are well-established outside of the pop culture art bubble. They aren’t just people who are pigeonholed.

Yeah. My portfolio might be half-and-half at this point, between personal work and stuff that is pop culture-inspired. Which I love! I get obsessed with certain things and I just need to get it out of my system. “I want to do a painting of that! Give me an excuse and I’ll do it!” I had my first con experience this past year and it was very fun. People get excited seeing these badass female characters.
Otherwise, my personal work takes front row most of the time.


kelly mckernan art


Do you think that having an antennae for producing pop culture-based art is important to sustain oneself as an artist? It has a built-in audience, after all.

There are people who display at cons and they ONLY make pop culture-related art and they don’t have any personal work. I don’t think you have to make pop culture work in order to be relevant at all. There are certain artists who just won’t touch it, because it feels like selling out to them. I do it because it’s fun. I enjoy reinterpreting work through my filter.


You film and post online tutorials on art. What has been the most vital form of arts education for you and how has that translated into how you communicate those lessons to an audience?

I think a traditional education in a classroom only takes you so far. It’s great for learning your basics: composition, concepts and principles and how you can apply that to your work. Then your hand is held, to a degree, and I think that’s where a lot of people fall off. Beyond that, being involved in the art community, following people you like, especially people who are very self-motivated. There are some great artists who are almost purely self-taught. They will tell you the same advice, that they follow the artists they admire who are doing their thing. One of the best parts about taking courses is being around your peers and being able to learn from them, too. It’s important to be well-rounded in your education. You don’t have to put yourself in a box with traditional school.


kelly mckernan art


You talk about interacting with the art community. Social media has been a very useful tool for you in terms of staying active and involved with your peers. How do you think social media is most useful to artists? Where should they put their time and what are they missing out on most by rejecting the medium?
It’s always great to hear from people who appreciate your work. I enjoy talking to the people who like what I do. They’re all really unique, people react very differently to different aspects of my work. And that’s pretty educational to me. Connecting with your audience also lets them know how much you appreciate them and all of them time they have taken to look at your work, share it, comment on it, and hopefully purchase it. Art is a luxury item. It’s not food, it’s not a necessity. So when people are spending their hard-earned money on an aesthetic it’s a big deal.


A look at some of the pop-inspired visions of Kelly McKernan…


kelly mckernan art

Art for “In Service of Monsters” at Gallery 1988.


kelly mckernan art

Art for “Lord of the Thrones” at the Spoke Art gallery.


kelly mckernan art

Maria Bamford portrait for “Is This Thing On?” at Gallery 1988.


kelly mckernan art

Art for “Femme Fatale”


kelly mckernan

Art for “Femme Fatale.”


kelly mckernan

Art for “Femme Fatale.”


Art for "Femme Fatale."

Art for “Femme Fatale.”


Mystique Watercolor Time-Lapse Painting


“Femme Fatale” is currently on display at Gallery 1988 (East) and runs thru August 20th.

Improve your painting skills by purchasing a video tutorial from Kelly McKernan HERE.

Purchase prints and other merch HERE.

View more art by Kelly McKernan on her website.

Subscribe to her YouTube channel.

Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

“Like” her on Facebook.

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- who has written 424 posts on Yay! LA | Arts & Culture Magazine.

Rudderless college graduate Daniel Barron founded Yay! LA Magazine on a love of writing, passion for the arts, and a firm belief that people really like talking about themselves. He contributed to a number of publications, including LA Music Blog and the defunct The Site Unscene, before deciding to cover arts and entertainment the way he wanted to read it. He works as a freelance writer and digital PR consultant in his current home of Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter at @YayDanielBarron.

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