Tuesday, June 29, 2021

The West Cork Cowboy - a Profile of John Kelly

An edited version of this profile (with copious images) appears in the summer 2021 edition of the Irish Arts Review.


An Irishman, and Englishman and an Australian walked into the Piccadilly Gallery in Cork Street, London in 1994 and announced his arrival on the European art scene. It was John Kelly, son of an Irish father and an English mother, who grew up in Melbourne - thereby allowing him access to three passports. (This fluid citizenship would prove useful as his career progressed.) Walking into a high-profile London gallery hawking your artistic wares takes nerve and usually leads to a brief encounter and a chastened exit. ‘I guess I’ve got a bit of the Ned Kelly in me’, the artist explained , ‘in the 19th Century I’d have been holding up a bank.’ However, on this occasion Kelly’s quirky and playful work aligned with the current direction Godfrey Pilkington’s gallery was taking (‘He hated abstract art and would have none of it’) and the youthful Aussie was in. 


A series of London exhibitions followed, many featuring his trademark Dobell cows. These shows caught the attention of a French dealer in Australian art Stephane Jacob who had already encountered his work at the Niagara Gallery in Melbourne. Through him Kelly was invited to exhibit at the prestigious Champs de la Sculpture II in Paris in 1996He made a maquette of his proposed work, a sculpture of cow lodged in a gum tree. This was partially inspired by Sidney Nolan’s Ram in Tree and his well-known photograph Untitled (Cow and Calf Carcass) that were responses to an epic flood in Australia. With the support of his gallery, some grants, and sales of the maquette he raised the £100,000 necessary to create an eight-meter high bronze version. The young artist was suddenly launched into international orbit as images of Cow up a Tree on the Champs Elysee went around the world. Time magazine and The Times both featured it. ‘I’d never made any sculpture more than 3 or 4 inches’ he recalled. He was also rubbing shoulders with international art giants such as Tony Cragg, Red Grooms and Nam June Paik. Kelly remembers Red Grooms, the feted American artist, and pioneer of site-specific sculpture, approaching him at the launch to compliment him: ‘John you stole the show.’ Having done well in Australia and London it looked as if he was set fair to conquer Europe. However, an invitation to show in Monte Carlo (where he exhibited another monumental sculpture Three Cows in a Pile) led to a dispute between his gallery and Jacob which deteriorated into a protracted legal dispute (‘it dragged on for five years’) from which nobody ultimately benefitted – not least Kelly. ‘The whole legal mess in Paris really stopped a significant career in Europe.’ However, the costs of this legal imbroglio led Kelly to attend to his finances and he and his wife Christina decided to move to Ireland where he could escape tax on his world-wide earnings, which were considerable. All arts-derived income was tax free here in those days. The plan was to come for a year or two and earn enough to pay off his legal fees – ‘to ride out this storm.’ However, a fateful visit to West Cork and the sighting of a property on a beautiful isolated peninsula overlooking Castlehaven Bay changed their plans. They’ve been here ever since.


Kelly owes much of his considerable career, in different ways, to the humble cow. His working-class family in the Sunshine area of Melbourne struggled for a while to put its talented boy through art college. However, the growing financial demands of a large family eventually resulted in his artistic ambitions being out on hold. But the wheel of fortune turned. His mother entered a Win a Wish competition sponsored by a dairy company that she spotted on the side of a milk carton. Miraculously her name was picked out in the subsequent raffle. This simple twist of fate allowed Kelly to continue his studies and happily his siblings were not forgotten – each getting a new bike. The bovine benefits didn’t end there for Kelly. While studying for his masters degree a few years later he got a part-time job in a library stacking books. He spent a lot of his time there loitering in the art section. One day he came upon the an account of the war-time activities of the Australian artist Bill Dobell (later to become Sir William). Dobell was initially enlisted as a camouflage laborer and was one of a group of artists charged with making life-size, papier-mache cows to fool the Japanese into thinking that air-fields were meadows with grazing cows. Kelly’s interest was piqued by the notion of these ersatz cows and his first exhibition at the Niagara Gallery in Melbourne in 1993 featured a painting Man Lifting Cow – depicting a man lifting Kelly’s quasi-cartoonish version of one of Dobell’s cows.The background included a wind sock indicating the associated airstrip from which the idea came. The man in overalls represented his father – a quarry worker for whom this was a characteristic mode of dress. Twenty-three years later, in 2016, a four and a half meter bronze of the same subject was installed in his home suburb of Sunshine. In between these two events came an eventful career that took Kelly around the world (literally) and eventually deposited him on an isolated peninsula in West Cork. The cows were intrinsic to his success. When he first walked into the Piccadilly Gallery it was the witty drawings of these cows that caught Godfrey Pilkington’s eye. They featured in his first monumental sculpture and in a recent sell-out show in Melbourne they were again generously represented.They have not been milked dry yet.


But, to hazard a mixed metaphor, Kelly is no one-trick pony. His vision encompasses many subjects and many art forms with widely contrasting end results. He can create a massive bronze sculpture with all its creative and logistical challenges or essay a delicate, minimal etching of a penguin.

He paints, he prints, he sculpts, he enlists computers to generate steel cutouts, and in the past he has flirted with installations and the conceptual. He is not adverse to abstraction as the bright fiberglass creations around his West Cork domain and works like Blot on the Landscape and Yellow Head from his recent Melbourne exhibition testify. After Picasso (Jug and Saucer), was selected to hang in the prestigious Yale Center for British Art in 2019. Kelly was also chosen as artist-in-residence on the icebreaker Aurora Australis on an Australian Antarctic mission in 2013. His first Dublin exhibition at the Oliver Sears Gallery coincided with this adventure leaving attendees bemused by the absence of the artist.  The art from this Antarctic trip was shown in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gellery in 2015. His etching Auster captures the beauty and starkness of that region in a few lines and a new Australia postage stamp celebrates his work in the region. He has also painted a series of restrained, beautifully composed studies of the Irish landscape, mostly around scenic Castlehaven but also memorably in the Burren. He also finds time to write and his move to Ireland hasn’t stopped him engaging robustly with the Australian art establishment – particularly in regard to its shabby treatment of indigenous artists. He writes for the Daily Review and Art Monthly Australasia and is proud of his nomination for the Walkley Foundation award for arts journalism in 2017. While in the Antarctic he also wrote a hair-raising blog about his adventures for the Guardian. 


Having landed in South Reen (follow a rough road from Union Hall in West Cork), Kelly became fascinated by its dark history. He discovered a letter dated 1846 from a local Justice of the Peace in Reen, N. M. Cummins, addressed to the Duke of Wellington and published in The Times. It recounted the horrors he encountered all around him: 


‘In the first, six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearances dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw, their sole covering what seemed a ragged horse cloth, their wretched legs hanging about , naked above the knees. I approached with horror and found by a low moaning they were alive - they were in fever, four children, a woman, and what had once been a man.’ 


While landscaping his property, and seeding it with his sculptures, Kelly determined to create a permanent monument to the area’s tragic past. He is calling this ambitious piece of land art The N.M. Cummins Think and Thank Garden.  The most monstrous element in the story of the Irish famine was the amount of food that was exported from the country while people starved. The fortune of the Liverpool greengrocer Henry Tate was created during the period of the famine – based on such exported produce. Tate eventually sold his shops and moved into the sugar market and in time became the benefactor behind the Tate Gallery. Kelly had originally built a scale model (about the size of a large mobile home) of the Tate Modern for a show in Melbourne in which he intended to house a copy of Cummins’ letter. He decided however that it would be appropriate that this symbol of the locale’s tragic past should be given a permanent home as a major feature of his planned garden. The title of his garden was an ironic take on the Tate family motto: Thincke and Thancke. Kelly contracted a local stone-carver to create a stone tablet containing the text from Cummins’ letter and placed it on the floor of the Tate model as an enduring reminder to all. This was accompanied by another stone tablet bearing an eye-witness account of the Famine’s horrors from a local doctor. In the structure he also placed a large cooking pot from the Famine period that he discovered on his property. It bears the distinctive Phoenix symbol indicating that it was donated by the Quakers.



The last few years have been a traumatic time for Kelly. While back in Australia in 2017 he contracted viral pneumonia and was hospitalized for a couple of weeks. On returning to Ireland he had a relapse and his illness escalated into something more serious. He collapsed at home and was taken to CUH and put into intensive care. His condition deteriorated and his wife Christina was told at one stage ‘that he was probably going to die’. However, due to the ministrations of the doctors at CUH, and a timely consultation with the Mayo Clinic, Kelly began a slow but steady recovery. Kelly makes special mention of the neurologist Stela Lefter’s role. His resurrection  was marked by a sell-out show at Smith & Singer in Melbourne in March 2021. In this exhibition, featuring a mix of new and older work, the full array of Kelly’s talents were on display. The recent work confirmed that his creative powers have not diminished despite being created while he was still physically frail. The sharp wit that is his trademark is seen in paintings like Incorrect Shadows (A Conversation) where his trademark cow confronts the kangaroo that represents the contentious brand of the Australian Arts Council. Kelly has written some fierce polemics about the very notion of branding art. His response to demands that he use the kangaroo logo on all material relating to his art, was to sabotage the notion by actually incorporating the logo into his art. Hence the cow and kangaroo face off in Incorrect Shadows and works like Big Foot.


Having been brushed by the wings of the Angel of Death Kelly is full of plans for the future. He is growing stronger by the day and is back playing tennis with Christina on his tournament-quality court. He has no immediate plans for a new exhibition but instead wants to complete his land art project. When he seemed to be slipping away last year Christina asked him what his last wish would be. Kelly asked that his N. M. Cummins Think and Thank garden be completed. In addition to the Tate Modern building, and his giant sculptures, he intends to add four further etched stone tablets and other artifacts associated with the Famine. He will also complete his spectacular landscaping of the land with provision for performing spaces and elaborate stone-walled areas channeling epic sea views. While he is confident that his reputation is secure in Australia (‘I feel rather comfortable I’ve made a mark in Australia through Dobell’s cows and other work.’), he feel he needs to do more here in his adopted home. ‘I’d love to create a lot of good work here in Ireland’. He sees his land art project as a major part of his legacy here. ‘I’d like it be unsellable – to leave it to the public in some way.’ Otherwise he is happy with his lot apart from a desire to return to Art Basel again at some stage. There’s a lingering feeling that his European and international ambitions were stymied by his long-running French legal imbroglio and that he needs to get back into that arena. Kelly is still a relatively young man and now that he has regained his fitness I wouldn’t bet against a triumphant return.


John P. O’Sullivan


March 2021.