Saturday, August 09, 2014

John Kelly - an Awkward Bugger

An edited version of this piece was published in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 3rd August 2014

Take the right turn for Union Hall on the road from Skibereen to Roscarberry and head south towards the sea. After many twists and turns you'll find yourself on the Reen Peninsula. This is the spectacularly scenic home of the artist John Kelly. A stroll around his extensive property yields many interesting and some downright surreal sights. As a herd of amiable Friesians graze nearby, you encounter a large bronze gum tree with a stylised Friesian lodged in its branches. This is Kelly's iconic Cow Up a Tree a version of which once graced the Champs Elysses in Paris. Nearby is a scale model of the Tate Gallery in London - the size of a small bungalow - and scattered around his gardens are sundry bronze kangaroos and startling abstract pieces.


Kelly has been living in Ireland for over ten years but is better known in Sydney and Melbourne than he is in Dublin and Cork. His affiliations are complicated and it shows in his retention of three passports - as if he's still making up his own mind. His father is from Cork (near Mallow) and his mother is English but the family went to Australia when he was six months old. The artist in him emerged in that country and it still remains his primary audience although he also shows regularly in London including at the Royal Academy. His web site describes him as "living in West Cork currently". The last word suggesting a provisional relationship with his father's home county. This identity issue amuses him. "I am the best known Irish Artist in Australia or alternatively a well known contemporary Australian artist here in Ireland". His disparate loyalties were demonstrated at his first Dublin solo show in the prestigious Oliver Sears Gallery in 2013. While viewers glided around sipping wine and admiring his cool spare seascapes of Castlehaven and its environs, he was tossing about in the middle of the Southern Ocean, one of the roughest and most dangerous in the world. He had taken up the position of artist in residence on the icebreaker Aurora Australis on an Australian Antarctic mission. Ahead lay a Shackelton-like experience with the enveloping ice and many adventures where his very survival was a matter of concern. The art he created on and from this trip will be shown in Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in 2015.

Cows loom large in Kelly's story. His mother won a Win a Wish competition advertised on the side of milk carton that enabled her to send her talented son to art school. One of Kelly's early shows in Australia was ungratefully entitled More Fucking Cows and he's best known for his playful paintings and sculpture based on the stylised papier-mache cows created by the Australian artist Sir William Dobell - supposedly as part of a camouflage project during World War II. No large mammal was safe from his gaze. In 1997 he did a show on Phar Lap - Australia's most famous race horse - called Painting the Dead Horse (the poor creature stands stuffed in a glass case in a Melbourne Museum). That show was opened by Barry Humpheries who is a fan, as is another famous Australian Rupert Murdoch. A pivotal moment in his career came in 1999 when he was asked by the City of Paris to exhibit in a sculpture exhibition, Champs del la Sculpture II, held on the Champs-Élysées to mark the millennium. This exhibition included internationally recognised artists such as Red Grooms, Nam June Paik, Tony Cragg, and Barry Flanagan. His work caught the attention of Time magazine and his reputation was launched.

A subsequent knotty legal imbroglio with his French agent "took the air out of my ascent" and Kelly, exhausted and dispirited by these travails, initially came to Ireland 10 years ago to get away from it all. He and his wife Christina happened upon a house amid the scenic splendours of Reen and he continued his international career from this West Cork base.

Kelly's creativity has many outlets. He paints, he sculpts, he prints, he enlists the aid of computers for his steel cutouts, he flirts with installations and the conceptual and he also writes about art and art history. When asked about Australian art many of us struggle to get beyond Sidney Nolan so it's interesting to hear his views on the likes of William Dobell, Brett Whitely, and Fred Williams. He recounts at length a wonderful story about how Dobell won the Archibald Prize for a portrait of his alleged lover Joshua Smith - who came second in the competition. Dobell was then sued by Smith's followers as they felt it was a caricature not a portrait and thus ineligible for the prize. Kelly was so taken by this story that he took the Australian art historian Elizabeth Donaldson to task in a letter to Art Monthly Australia (AMA) in 2011 for her homogenised history of the incident.

Kelly is a fine writer with a colourful turn of phrase. While in the Antarctic he wrote a hair-raising blog for the Guardian and has also written extensively for AMA and Circa. He also likes to engage with the art community both here and in Australia and is not afraid to speak his mind. When the Australia Council for the Arts brought in Saatchi and Saatchi to review arts policy in Australia, the agency advocated that Australian art be branded. Kelly wrote directly to the Prime Minister of the day pointing out the blatant folly of this policy. Closer to home he wrote an open letter to the Crawford Open in 2007 taking its organisers to task over what he saw as a flawed open submission competition. Amongst other criticisms he felt that the selection process was questionable. The absence of robust reviewing of artists and art institutions in Ireland is a particular concern of his. He is very critical of the Arts Council decision to cut its funding for Circa while during the same period increasing that of the Irish Arts Review. The latter is essentially, he suggests, a commercial enterprise which famously confines its criticism to dead artists and past infamies (such as Peter Murray's excellent piece on the Bantry House collection). No contemporary gallery or art institution need fear its bite. Kelly feels that there is a clique running the art institutions that are happy to host big names from the international circuit but don't do enough to foster contemporary Irish art, and don't take kindly to questions about their stewardship.

His current show in the Doswell Gallery in Roscarbery demonstrates his love affair with the landscape of West Cork. Kelly felt his studio was becoming "like a padded cell" and decided to "be creative in front of the landscape". So he took his field easel up Ceim Hill for views of Castlehaven Harbour and the Stags and set to work. Most of the works you see were painted from there or from his perch in Myross Cemetery - high above Reen. In the cemetery he began using the grave stone of an Anne Sullivan as a plinth to hold his easel - going a bit further along the memento mori route than those writers who keep a skull on their desks. In an eerie twist he discovered from a neighbour that the same Anne Sullivan lived in the house that he now occupies. The show also features some images of his Antarctic encounters with penguins and a new series of prints done with the Stony Road Press that revisit some of his recent West Cork paintings. Kelly has also taken a keen interest in the tragic history of his locale. The scale model of the Tate Modern on his land was originally intended for a show in Melbourne where it would house a letter written in 1846 by a justice of the peace in Reen, N. M. Cummins. This letter recounted in horror the affects of the famine in Myross and South Reen. Kelly had been much engaged by the fact that Irish art has left no contemporary record of the famine such as Jean-Francois Millet's Prayer for a Potato Crop.The establishment shills that made art in the Ireland of the time would not have wanted to rock the boat. He chose the Tate because it owed its existence to a fortune made from food (initially a string of greengrocers around Liverpool) at a time when Ireland was starving.

John Kelly has been described by an Irish academic as "an awkward and obsessive artist". That statement is almost tautologous, or at least a good working definition of what an artist should be. Obsession is surely necessary to pursue any art form and being awkward means that you don't necessarily abide by the status quo or follow received wisdom. The artist as outsider has many illustrious precedents. Caravaggio was an awkward customer, as was Van Gogh. For domestic reasons Kelly plans to spend more time in Dublin over the next few years and those who care about Irish art in the capitol should welcome both his multi-faceted art and his trenchant critical contributions. Meanwhile some of our art institutions, especially those down south, should perhaps pay more attention to an artist of Irish origin honoured internationally but largely ignored here.