Thad Kellstadt's SPACE exhibit gives play to realism and psychedelia

Kurt Shaw
| Wednesday, May 29, 2013, 7:00 p.m.

Visitors to the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's SPACE gallery, Downtown, earlier this year may remember the exhibit “Romper Room,” in which the show's organizer, Tommy Bud, aka “Ladyboy,” and Thad Kellstadt made a mess of the place in an effort to reflect a gritty urban environment by adding broken skateboard ramps and spreading trash all around the place.

Well, Kellstadt has returned and he's done it again, sort of, with the piece “There is No Such Thing As Luck,” which is a 5-foot-tall, water-and-garbage-filled (i.e, flip-flops, a diaper, beer can, etc.) basin made to look like, in Kellstadt's words, “all the backyard, above-ground pools I've seen from West Virginia to Ohio, filled with trash. This is a hyperbolic version of that.”

Kellstadt, 35, lives in Iowa City, Iowa. But he grew up in rural Circleville, Ohio, and lived in Pittsburgh for many years before leaving for Chicago in 2007 and ultimately landing in Iowa a few years later.

He has returned to Pittsburgh and SPACE, albeit ever so briefly, for his latest solo exhibit, “On the Glass Surf.”

Asked why the unusual title, Kellstadt explains, “I see the show as having two parts — between floating and drowning. There is this sort of psychedelic immersion, and then there is hard realism.”

In regard to the first part, Kellstadt has filled SPACE with a variety of his off-the-wall op/pop art paintings that explore geometry through hard lines, bold shapes and neon saccharine colors. Many of the pieces, and there are more than half a dozen, border on portraiture at the most basic level, such as “Bored Anarchist,” which is a block-headed portrait bust, filled with fluorescent orange paint splatters.

“I get as close as I can tell recognized form, but still stay on the brink,” Kellstadt says.

Kellstadt takes his unusual painting style to the pinnacle with “Dirty Mirrors,” a massive, multi-panel painting installation comprised of 10 stretched and connected canvases that form a pyramid shape. With bricks painted at the base and a diamond shape at the top, the imagery is not perfectly symmetrical. But, for all intents and purposes, it's a mirror image from left to right. “It's a pure psychedelic, ‘through the looking glass' kind of thing,” Kellstadt says, regarding “Dirty Mirrors.” And, as for the mirror aspect, he says, “The dirty mirror is a portal, but not necessarily something you want to jump through.”

All of the paintings were made here in Pittsburgh over the past month. “I kind of like making stuff, not at the last minute, but ‘in the heat,' ” Kellstadt says.

That gives the work, and the show a freshness. But as effervescent as Kellstadt's paintings are, the dream state they create stops short when the visitor is confronted with Kellstadt's other, more somber, works.

For instance, “Disaster Porn” references the overwhelming amount of media images we are bombarded with daily on television and the Internet, especially those related to human tragedies. Here, images culled from those sources are mixed with more psychedelic and geometric portraits, 26 in all. As for the title, Kellstadt says, “ ‘Disaster Porn' is a term I heard for (media imagery), and I agree with it.”

In similar fashion, Kellstadt mixes psychedelic imagery with real-life film footage in “Huffer.” Visitors are welcome to sit on two big beanbag chairs in a closed-off area specifically designed for viewing, and watch slow-motion video of skateboarders mixed in with brightly colored geometric patterns that are animated in slow motion to a space-age soundtrack of the artist's devising.

Other video pieces, like “Funny Cry Happy” and “Wolves Abound,” feature more psychedelically inspired animations. The two-channel video “Pure American Extreme,” which features two identical jet airplanes on a tarmac facing each other, gives yet-another unnerving twist to the lighthearted nature of the previously mentioned works. “It's about stress,” Kellsdtadt says of the piece.

The rest of the show is filled with a variety of explorations that are hard to categorize, such as “The Summoning,” a massive digital print of an amalgam of death-metal band logos laid one atop another digitally. Not far away hangs a small blanket, printed with a graphic design of a highway. Having the prosaic title of “Not All Who Wander Are Lost,” it is a take on rest-stop graffiti, Kellstadt says.

“It's a common phrase you see on bathroom stalls at highway rest stops,” he says.

This piece, like many in the show, celebrates the mundane. And perhaps no piece does this better than “Slight Flight,” which is a suspended piece made of two ceiling tiles that are stuck with a variety of pencils and pens — an obvious nod to classroom boredom.

“I like taking the mundane and exalting it a little bit, giving it a home, a fresh start,” Kellstadt says.

Ultimately, the show comes off as a mishmash of ideas, styles and modes of working. All of which is fine with Kellstadt.

“I'm not a purist,” he says. “If I have an idea, I'll either make it as a painting, a video or something else entirely. It's all about how an idea comes to me and how I execute it. I work equally on all of it.”

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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