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Artist Provocateur


By Ajay Singh

Published Oct 1, 2007 8:00 AM

Copyright © Photo By Tamar Levine

He's put Gerber's baby food logos on condom wrappers, embedded icons such as Che Guevara in Dolce & Gabbana ads and run for governor of California. Even though he has a double major in history and international economics from UCLA, it is as a super pop artist that Trek Thunder Kelly '92 is making waves.

Q. How did you become an artist?

A. I was grounded a lot as a kid and had two choices to escape boredom: read or draw. I read comic books and drew superheroes. My dad imbued in me the prejudice that you couldn't create any sort of art until you could paint, so one day I bought a canvas and just started painting. Now, because I have my own specialty-advertising business, art allows me to do what I want to do, which is to create art that isn't solely for the marketplace.

Q. What's your view of art?

A. Art is anything that creates an emotional response and provides structure for questions — the viewer provides the answers for himself. I think it's an artist's responsibility to use technologies that weren't available to artists before. If Warhol or Picasso were alive today, they'd be using new possibilities, because the only way art can affect the world is on a person-to-person basis or if the artist hooks up with the media.

Q. How does performance fit in that point of view?

A. I use reality itself as a medium, just like paint or clay, and combine it with art. That is, I take art and insert it into people's lives out of context so that they are forced to look at a piece of art twice. It's reality-based performance art. And there's no "audience" — everyone and everything that interacts with a piece becomes part of it. Just the simple act of witnessing or reacting makes you part of the art.

Q. What was your first reality-based performance art piece?

A. In 1999, I wore a black tuxedo for the whole year. I was always in a black tuxedo jacket, black tuxedo pants, black vest, black tie, black socks and black shoes. It made choosing clothes every day really easy. For example, if I went skiing, I wore a tuxedo under black ski gear.

Q. What sort of reactions did you get?

A. Kids thought I was a magician. People asked me for water in restaurants; outside, they would hand me their car keys. Or people would think I was heading to or leaving a wedding. It was interesting, because you learn how people create a rationale for what other people do. The more people saw me, the more those constructs broke down — obviously I wasn't going to a wedding every day. These kinds of pieces are almost social experiments that color people's perceptions.

Q. You were making a larger point?

A. I was taking things out of context and, through repetition, causing some question to be asked by the viewer. First they see me in a tux and they make an excuse, a justification. But the more they see me, the more they think, "Why is this guy wearing a tux every day? Is it fashion? Is it art?"

Q. And you had your own version of a blue period.

A. In 2003, I dressed in nothing but blue — royal blue. It was ugly — everything was the exact same shade, down to the blue socks and ski helmet. And blue underwear; even though it doesn't show, it was important to the integrity of the piece. During my blue year, the governor's recall election happened in California. My yearlong pieces are all about branding — creating impressions through repetition — and I knew I would get a lot of press if I ran for governor. So I did.