Shan Kelley: What Comes With Disclosing

Shan Kelley: What Comes With Disclosing


January 17, 2018

I view the act of oversharing and openly offering full disclosure, as a tactic to reposition and invert the power dynamic of being exposed, and of being made to feel vulnerable. I’m not one to go quietly.”

Shan Kelley is an artist and activist engaged in discussions around identity and the HIV+ body. Since his own diagnosis, Kelley’s practice has employed language and mixed media to disclose deep intimacies and revelations. Through this, he remains autonomous in his exposure while simultaneously creating space for vulnerable discourse. Kelley is currently showing his body of work, Disclosures, at dc3 Art Projects.

Disclosures was open to the public from November 3 – December 16, 2017. Within the exhibition, three distinctive artists – Dana Dal Bo, Shan Kelley, and Dayna Danger – conduct explorations into what we choose to disclose, what comes with disclosing, and who holds the power to make disclosures.

In an email conversation spanning several weeks, Shan Kelley and Jessa Gillespie from dc3 Art Projects discuss exposure and surveillance, navigating vulnerability, and what it means to leave behind a legacy.  

< jessa gillespie > Why don’t we start out by talking a bit about your creative process. Where do you begin with a new work or body of work?

< shan kelley > In the throes of gallery install, I’ve been intensely focused on the completion of a giant painted text piece which nearly killed me. Very seldom do I tend to work in a linear manner. I suppose this endeavour to work, and to make time to create work is itself a challenge. Consequently, once I begin, I absolutely need, and luxuriate in allowing myself to become consumed with creating work.

My involvement and relationship to social justice movements, my own lived experience of navigating through challenge first as an HIV+ person, and now as a father, inform a great deal of the work I’m inspired to create. For a period of time, I was much more comfortable with distancing myself from being proximate and identifiable in much anything I would make. Somehow I’ve become attracted to exploring this discomfort and find myself testing the limits of my reluctance through overly revelatory intimacies and disclosures that mine from these experiences. My creative process often begins with trying to locate within the nuance between polarities. There is always a distillation of working through an emotional space and trying to decide how best to represent it visually. I fill my notebooks with writing well before drawing, I enjoy playing with language so much that often I want inclusion of those elements to appear central. In my own manner, I suppose I’m following a chronology of different passages in life filtered through the inescapable lens of AIDS, and the systems our world has created that allow this to flourish. My daughter has been my muse even long before she was born, and I’ve been considering the heritage of what I’ll leave behind in hopes that it can operate as a tool set to understanding who I am, and how that all fits into the puzzle of our relationship to each other in this life, and beyond mortality.

< jessa > What are you installing right now?

What prompted this shift in becoming more vulnerably invested in the work? Yes, the scripto-visual schema is your work is definitely predominant. Language can function in such an explicit way; do you ever wrestle with how much to ‘give away’ per se?

< shan > I’ve finished painting an 18 x 12-foot text piece titled Count Me Out onto a gallery wall for a group show which just opened here in Montréal (the empty space you see between words is the time it took me to wake up while pressing the spacebar). Lately it seems, sleep overcomes me more easily than usual. I recently also switched/updated to the iPhone X of HIV meds and I’m unclear on whether onset of this kind of near narcolepsy is the result of a side effect, or I’m just really fatigued. Likely a bit of both but last evening it got the best of me.

I’m not interested in self-immolation. I feel far less vulnerable in the raw. Sharing deep intimacy gives me a vantage from which I feel strength, and safety. My setting by default, was to remain obscure. I always liked to keep myself out of the frame, but that became a very charged and problematic metaphor as I began to develop thematic interest in exploring body, safety, and sexuality in relationship to visibility, disclosure, agency, and power. I’ve drawn so much inspiration from my advocacy work in human rights and social justice, particularly as it pertains to my personal experience with HIV, that slippage between work outside, and within the studio was inevitable.

A work I titled: “Of Hope and Sickness” was a catalyst for openness and visibility. I was challenged by a portrait of me which was taken by my mother as I lay infirm at our family home days before my HIV+ diagnosis. I was barely alive. Four years later, while visiting, the light fell perfectly upon my newly born daughter as I placed her down to sleep on the same sofa. I took a photo because it was an uncanny mirror of myself, and circular nature of events that lead to that captured moment. Placing the two photos into a work was the turning point for me in moving well beyond the confines of my self-erasure.

I’ve since become interested in pushing the boundaries of my own comfort in being raw, open, and transparent, rather than opaque and somewhat present. I view the act of oversharing and openly offering full disclosure, as a tactic to reposition and invert the power dynamic of being exposed, and of being made to feel vulnerable. I’m not one to go quietly. After being affected by a medical and social condition so steeped in a history of shame, stigma, and death, what option is left between silence and action? I bear a legacy. I’ve been gifted life thanks to the legion of others that came before me, and fought for survival. In my privilege, I have no reason to do any less than hold that torch, that it might set fire and pass to others.

What concerns me now that I’m a parent, is not self exposure per se, but the collateral effect it may have in relation to my daughter’s proximity to this exposure. Consequently, she’ll be well prepared. She’s going to learn how to negotiate and mitigate a distinct, yet related, set of parameters, and she’s going to set the world ablaze.

I attached a couple of photos of the work I referenced so you can see what I’m blathering on about. I hope you’ll accept my apologies for the spotty correspondence these past few days. Now that I’m out of the gallery, I have the time but need more bloody sleep. Thanks for bearing with me.


CountMeOut (1)

Count Me Out, 2017, installation, 18 x 12 ft.

Image courtesy of the artist.

OfHopeAndSickness_web (1)

Of Hope and Sickness, 2013, digital print, 36 x 60 in.

Image courtesy of the artist.


< jessa > I hope that you’ve had a restful couple of days!

In relation to the body of work you are showing at dc3 Art Projects right now, this idea of “full disclosure” comes through poetically within the intimacy of the text. I am however, curious about your formal, more sculptural decisions – the hand-perforated text. As it is not legible from a distance, it requires the viewer to interact on an intimate level, becoming an active participant in the work. Could you speak a bit about your methodologies/reasoning behind this?



Install shot of Disclosures at dc3 Art Projects, 2017.


< shan > Thanks Jessa! Ah, December. Daydreams of long and full days free of encumbrance, filled with all the false luxury of sloth.

Thank you. Scale of the human body, and its relationship to the scale of the work is a consideration that greatly informs my process. My point of entry with the idea to reproduce excepts from conversations, and transliteration of past events, began with trying to resolve a means to address how a text based artwork could exploit a proximal relationship to its viewer. Presenting the text through layering of opaque and pierced paper allows me to manipulate legibility, which is then contingent on congruency directly related to the position, or attention of the viewer’s body.

A very simple but specific physical interaction such as standing directly in front of, and close to the work mimics that same closeness and space that people inhabit when exchanging intimacy. Much like a muted conversation just barely out of earshot, viewing the work from a vantage less ideal, provides a different interpretation. I thought about the way I’ve observed groups of people approach each other casually, yet encircle in a more cohesive and tight formation of cluster while listening intently. It seems the physical distance is shortened between bodies that wish to share revelatory intimacy, bodies that share secrets, and bodies that disclose.  The expression “…rather tell you in person” seems to convey a similar sense of gravitas which is rooted in a mutual understanding of the requisite physical presence of the listener. So, I’m inviting active participation in sharing my intimacies, while still retaining a certain measure of invisibility with a technique of discreetly altering the surface of these papers with needle piercing.

Similarly, the use of needle introduces a further allusion to my own experience as a medicalised body. Recreating text that is based on the structured form of a pre-existing standard font through laborious repetition of piercing becomes a nearly mechanical process however, and I appreciate this idea that the observably handmade might also disappear into the rigidity of that formalism.

< jessa > Ha, exactly. Justifiable hibernation!

Wow, I really appreciate this parallel of “a muted conversation just barely out of earshot”. I find the idea of ‘brushing up’ against other lives and realities a fascinating narrative to engage with.

So I have two queries in relation to this. Firstly, are the excerpts and transliterations happening within this body of work coming from an isolated or distinct period in your life? Or have you brought disparate experiences together to form something akin to a narrative? Secondly, you’ve included a piece that is perched on several sandbags on the floor. Can you talk about this piece in particular, and why you’ve chosen to display it this way?



Install shot of Disclosures at dc3 Art Projects, 2017.


< shan > At this period, I’d reached a turning point of complete self acceptance and confidence in which I made an effort to engage lovers with disclosure of my HIV+ status. In creating this work, I placed my focus on the fragments of language from those conversations which would function singularly, yet also form a greater narrative when viewed alongside each other.

This central piece is deliberately legible in a way the other works are not. The pierced sheet of paper is lain at a shorter distance from the printed background page so that legibility isn’t advantageous to a singular viewer, or fixed to a specific alignment of the body. Rather, it allows for multiple viewers to look down simultaneously upon its position. At nearly ground level, it fluctuates between a call for deliberate reflective gaze, or piteous disregard. In the same sense, although the text itself speaks of legacy, it does so through the lens of mortality. What is the significance of death if legacy exists in the present, and in perpetuity? At a young age when I was a pallbearer for my grandfather, the masonic funerary rites reflecting the stages of birth, life, eventual demise and then, rebirth fascinated and terrified me. The sandbags are an allegorical symbol to Ecclesiastes: “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was”. In my interpretation, those that have come before me don’t return to dust, but exist as supports that strengthen the present.

< jessa > Very poetic. So what is going on in your studio these days?

< shan > It sounds a bit cliché, but my daytime schedule seems to be at odds with my creative / studio time. Much of this has to do with being a parent and I’m constantly adapting my work habits to accommodate my living space as a hybrid studio. The constraint of doing so has adjusted the size of what I’m building, so I suppose there is a new level of intimacy I’m exploring with smaller canvases, book, and photo work. I keep several notebooks obsessively and write/sketch when an idea strikes.

I’ve just finished creating a large in situ painted text mural for a group show here in Montréal, and I think its scale is directly proportional to my enthusiasm with breaking away from my kitchen sink studio for a bit. Back at home, I’m currently painting a private commission. In the early new year, I’ll be focusing on three distinct bookwork collaborations which are in all in various stages of progress.

< jessa > Parenting would definitely affect your ability to have set studio hours!

Is it a choice or a necessity to not have a separate studio? This is the Count Me Out piece that you were referring to earlier? What is the focus of the group show?

< shan > I think often about how my experience with parenting has resulted in a curious time bending phenomena in which no matter how long and arduous a day might seem, the measurable hours of that day seem hyper accelerated, resulting in a confusing mess of short days that simultaneously seem very long. Dad-speed-time-warp?

When I maintained a studio, I didn’t make use of it regularly. To this day, I still prefer to sequester myself for periods to complete work that has been drafted. Frequent travel and a decision to live abroad gave me opportunity to learn how to adapt to different methods of creating work dynamically, and appreciate some of the constraints of displacement. Having said that, I’m actively looking for a new studio space to call home.

Yes, I recently finished painting Count Me Out onto a large wall for a group show in Montréal called Témoigner pour agir which showcases work which explores the use of testimonial, in relation to sexuality, gender, and community.

< jessa > OK, I have one last question for you! Your mode of working –  this dynamic adaption to site/process/experience – is responsive, yet the ideas of temporality and legacy are also predominant in your thinking. Do you ever think about how your practice may evolve further into the future?

< shan > I try to compartmentalize my impulse to be creative so that I can allow myself space to make work without self censor, and pressure of a grand idea of corpus. Ultimately, themes that interest me have a way of manifesting, regardless of how often I switch, and explore different materials, or mediums. As I transition back to a studio space, I’m looking forward to mapping out some more ambitious and elaborate installation projects.

As I continue to create works that aren’t necessarily responsive to HIV, I recognize there may always be a certain tension between currently existing past work, and the identity I inhabit as a function and result of that process which will influence new expressions in future works.