Attention to Detail: The Life’s Work of Kevin Landis

The various works of art by adopted Chicagoan Kevin Landis, currently on display at Metropolis Cafe, are just some of the artistic fruits of his lifelong fascination with–and dedication to–the production of art no matter the time, tithe or toll.

Meaning, what you see on the walls at Metropolis Cafe represents a lifetime of work that gathered intensity and focus when Landis spent three years working on one ballpoint pen drawing…from 15 to 18 years of age. Since then, he’s just continued to spin threads and now we may behold the finished tapestries.

“I’ll have drawings accumulate over the years and certain images start bubbling up and I take them and run with them on a large scale and it becomes a statement of where I’m at over time,” says Landis. “It’s not a very efficient process. I’m not churning these [large-scale pieces] out all the time, a lot of times they’re the tip of the iceberg. I let the drawings, watercolors and pastels continually flow. There will be dozens of efforts in sketchbooks, small-scale studies and color sketches. It gets to this point where I feel like there’s a kind of metaphor that I really want to crystalize, make it into something that has a sense of summing up everything I’m trying to get at at that time.

“They only come out once a year, or every other year. It’s not like, ‘I gotta have a show.’ The paintings come up when they’re supposed to,” finishes Landis, who can talk for hours and isn’t really finished at all–either thinking, talking, teaching or, at the base of it all, creating art.

His Work: tiny to BIG

This in-born intensity has ended with Landis being comfortable in a wide range of mediums and scales. He ranges from giving decades-long attention to the smallest of pieces while turning out large-scale murals, one of which you can check out anytime at the UIC Medical Pavilion. What’s the difference between a work of art Landis hangs on the wall and one he applies to the world at large?

“I started doing murals because I didn’t like the idea of someone buying art and a few people seeing it,” says Landis. “It’s not the same as my studio art, but the skills are connected. The content, the source material, there’s always a need for that.

“[The murals are] a way of having a counterbalance from the extreme detail and layering [in my other pieces],” he continues. “I try to let the still lifes be the vehicle for my tendency to get more and more involved at the surface, each microcosm. It’s constantly going inside [the piece of art] and that tendency can lead to obsessiveness. It’s not a predetermined thing, it just has to work.”

Introspective at a high level, no doubt, Landis admits spending that much time alone in pursuit of your work (“I’d look into the pores of the paper with a ballpoint pen and I had to let go of that process,” he says.) is fraught with, well, freight. “Something about working alone and not so much with other people keeps your ego a bit childish,” he says. “It’s a lifetime choice, which I have done. I could have gone into medicine or science, [but] always had a love for this and a desire.”

His artistic philosophy? “The work must have a sense of being, a presence,” he says of his work, but he’s also realistic and this should give every artist a non-self-critical pause: “I know that art work can do that; not all does,” he says. “But it’s magical when it does happen and it’s completely unpredictable. I get a lot of failed attempts, but when it works, it’s unbelievable.

“I think it worked with the pineapple; it’s staring back at you,” he says of one of the pieces we’re featuring at Metropolis Cafe. “Aome are more about a story accumulating over time and the paint is more the vehicle for that story but in the still life the paint isn’t the vehicle, it’s the essence itself; [it has] it’s own presence.”

With the still life work on display, especially, you’ll see Landis’ commitment to layering and repainting, and probably see or feel hints of sculpture in these works. The display includes four distinct sections: impress drawings, still life works, animal portraits and in the back room there’s a “large-scale metaphorical painting with a dream-like sense that’s evoked over time and I try to encapsulate where I’m at existentially.” Right?

Life: It’ll Throw Ya For A Loop

How do we all get where we’re going? Our paths are mutable, if set on certain courses early in life. For Landis, these formative years were both incredibly tough and, in the long haul, rewarding. “I had German parents who were very, very strict…and i chose to be undisciplined. I got a lot out of it, but I hated aspects of it.

“They were first generation immigrants with several German bakeries in Baltimore who’d retired and hadn’t been able to have children, but wanted to contribute something to a family,” Landis recalls. “My own father was schizophrenic and died and we were committed to foster homes, my brother and myself.”

“Probably a very good thing I got from them was doing something for a bigger purpose than just your genetic instincts, there’s a bigger family in the world,” continues Landis. “They had a sense of us all connected in some way.”

For Landis, that connected ended up with him being able to follow his calling and enroll at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he obtained a degree that included a stint studying in Germany at the Braunschwag. This became influential in that it gave him a deep respect and feeling for the essence of art and awe at the moment of its creation.

Landis recalls a desire to consume and make art as a first memory kind of thing, from the age of three onward. As mentioned above, he began doing “really detailed ballpoint pen renderings,” which consumed his artistic output during high school. “I was so tight, I couldn’t think about using paint and letting things happen. [I had to] come back to it years later and with more experience.”

But some of those early experiences were integral: “I grew up on a farm and would go out and draw nature, take objects and put them in tableaus: animals, people, leaves, corn cobs, things I liked to look at and interpret in drawing.”

He grew up outside of Baltimore, in Hartford Country, but always felt “…like I needed to be in a city. I was missing something.” He definitely took care of that need in 1984, moving to Chicago. Since, that conflict between the actual visual landscape of country and city has also informed his work, says Landis. “It’s about there being a balance somewhere and I think the organic objects and shapes [I create] are a ritual way of going back to the forms of nature I miss living in the city.

“There’s something about the simplicity and honesty of that [rural landscape], things that in a city we take and interpret and decorate our homes with, getting back to that raw thing, the idea of ritually celebrating. I think, in an way, I’m collecting and creating stuff that reminds me of that.”

Art From Life

He feels it was mission accomplished in this respect with his mural at UIC. “I wanted to create sense of panoramic view of various topographies of nature, an underwater, safari,” says Landis. “The animals are out of scale based on your point of view.” To keep it interesting over time, thanks to shifting perceptions per the viewer’s vision and mental state. He’s working through the process to do a mural at the Evanston Medical Center, as well. That project, and the animal portraits on display at Metropolis Cafe, came from time spent recovering from an operation.

“I was going through operations on my leg and I’d take my sketch supplies and had idea of doing these animal portraits as a fundraiser [so I could do] larger parts of UIC Medical Center. I started doing these things while recuperating and easy to do because of the scale, had to do them in a hospital bed at first, and they just kept going.

“The really simple subject of a face looking back at you with the animal eyes and maybe because still lifes don’t have that element of a living thing, [they're] more about color and form, they can have essence, only goes so far. more the color, form, texture, layer,” says Landis. “They’re almost human, not but right there; animals [are] unencumbered by abstraction of thought process. It’s more direct and honest.”

These days, he’s making art as actively as ever. He’s also teaching. “I feel good about teaching,” says Landis. “I didn’t want it to be something I did because I didn’t know any other way to get a paycheck, but I’ve gotten there from a place of not needing institutional support, on my own terms.”

However rough the road, it’s evident Landis has lived his life on his own terms, following his artistic instincts to hone in on a project to the exclusion of all else while not forgetting to emerge into the greater human equation every now and then for some more…essence.

See more of Landis’ work on his new Facebook page.

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