Kelly’s Garden Curated Projects #3
Installation by John Kelly
“At a time when the contemporary art of any country can appear ubiquitous, the art of John Kelly strikes us as quintessentially and unmistakably Australian. Kelly came to prominence in Australian art quite early in his career, with the success of his first exhibition at Niagara Galleries in 1988 and internationally through his solo shows in London whilst still a postgraduate student between 1994 and 1997.
Kelly was born in Bristol in 1965, the son of an Irish father and English mother. The family emigrated to Australia when he was six months old. He uniquely holds three passports, British, Australian and Irish but his key cultural frame of reference is decidedly Australian and, while he now resides in Europe, the content and subject matter which fuels his work is antipodean.
His series ‘Dobell’s Cows’ of paintings between 1991 and 1996 revealed the core characteristics of Kelly’s art – a fascination with Australian history, the central motif of the animal, a strong interest in the art of the Australian modernists of the forties and an irreverent humour. The wartime experiences of Dobell and other artists, (such as Joshua Smith), as camouflage artists creating farm animals from papier maché in a vain attempt to dress airfields up as farms to confuse Japanese pilots, struck a chord with Kelly. The sheer futility of the enterprise and the seriousness with which the artists were expected to take it appealed to Kelly’s innate attraction for the absurd follies, which can often result from Government policy, and the bizarre outcomes that they can produce.
Kelly may have come to prominence initially as a painter but printmaking and sculpture were always key interests and currently form a major and growing part of his practice. His well-known ‘Cow up a Tree’ sculpture, initially shown as part of an international sculpture exhibition on the Champs Élysèes depicted a sight not uncommon in the Australian bush, a dead animal lodged in a tree by fast-rising floodwaters, but this image takes on an altogether surreal aspect in a Europe unfamiliar which such occurrences. Similarly ‘Three Cows in a Pile’ from 2002, shown in Monte Carlo, further cemented Kelly’s presence as an artist of international profile and brought his particular sense of the absurd to a much wider audience.
Kelly has always been alert to pomposity and those forces that would seek to manipulate us. His respect for Australian art and artists and his questioning of global market trends brought about the series of paintings and sculptures which utilise the logo of the Australia Council for the Arts in a strategy which questions the notion of ‘branding’ (which became prominent in Government policy expressed through the policies of the Australia Council). Utilising the image of the labyrinth, (a metaphor for bureaucracy), and images of cows and kangaroos within that, these works speak of the artist’s ongoing need to both deal with and critique Government policy in the arts. The most distinctive expression of this is the series of sculptures that are created from deconstructing the Australia Council logo and its re-assembly as a series of abstracted but still recognisable elements. This was a central theme his exhibition of large steel sculptures collectively titled ‘Deconstructing Australia’ in 2007 and is further reflected in this group of works.
An interesting and somewhat ironic twist on the notion of branding was that an approach was made to Kelly by The Moorilla Winery to produce a series of beer labels for a new range of specialist beers. Now the Australia Council logo, as the key compositional element of some of Kelly’s work reproduced on the labels, has been taken a step further and that ‘brand’ becomes yet another ‘actual’ brand. A further irony is that Kelly’s own artistic history has seen a shift from the ‘cow’ as a means for others of ‘branding’ his work (as if this were his only subject matter), to the Australia Council’s brand, as it too has become almost another means of branding his art.
A more recent central motif adopted by Kelly is the Sidney Nolan painting ‘The Boy and the Moon’, (also known as ‘Moonboy’). This image is unusual in Australian paintng of the period for it’s minimalist, modernist simplicity. In Kelly’s re-workings of it he integrates the Australia Council logo integrally yet almost imperceptibly, so completely are the two fused. His recent work, exemplified by ‘Self Portyarit from Afar’, takes this motif into three dimensions and to the point of pure abstraction but, like all of Kelly’s work, remains tied to the figurative base from which it initially springs. Again, an homage, the simple circular motif allows Kelly space to explore a number of artistic correspondences, (not simply the Australia Council logo), such as modernism and even the respectful background dialogue that his work has with indigenous Australian art.
Through his art, John Kelly continues to operate as a voice which urges us to respect the tradition of our artistic culture while critiquing the way in which it is presented and supported, and it does so with the larrikin humour of one who watches the Emperor and his wardrobe closely.”
–Seán Kelly, Curator
Friday 20 March – Friday 22 May 2009
Monday – Friday 9:00am – 5:00pm
Thursday 19 March 2009 @ 5:30pm
Exhibition to be opened by Leigh Carmichael
Biography: John Kelly
John Kelly was born in Bristol, UK in 1965 and his family immigrated to Australia the same year.
in 1985 John obtained a Bachelor of Arts (Visual Arts – Painting) from RMIT University, Melbourne, where he also completed his Masters of Arts in 1995. As a winner of the 1995 Anne & Gordon Samstag International Visual Arts Scholarship, he travelled to London to study as an Affiliate Student at the Slade School of Art from 1996 to 1997. John is currently living and working in Europe. He is represented by Niagara Galleries, Melbourne.
Kelly’s Garden Curated Projects is an initiative of The Salamanca Arts Centre and made possible through the generosity of Aspect Design and fundraising from SAC’s Supporters at the SAC Quiz Night. This Project was assisted through Arts Tasmania by the Minister for Tourism and the Arts.
Image Credits: Fiona Fraser