Tuesday 23 August 2016

John Kelly

John Kelly is an artist of versatility and depth. He is a painter, a print-maker, a sculptor and a writer with claim to three nationalities; Irish, English and Australian and a passport to prove each. Born in England to a mother from Bristol and a father from Cork, raised and educated in Australia, he is now settled in Ireland, and has worked on projects across nearly all the continents, including Antarctica.

Alien, John Kelly, cor-ten steel, 2006,
Photo by Meg Eloise Connell, 2016
I went out to visit Kelly at his rural property on the scenic coastline of Castlehaven a few weeks ago  and had the chance to explore his self-made sculpture park across his land. Only taking two wrong turns down the winding roads en route, I knew I was finally in the right place when I turned a corner and a cor-ten steel "Alien" came in to view, sitting on his front lawn. 

John and his wife Christina have lived at their Reen home in West Cork for 13 years now and had their large land extension which is now home to a number of artworks for the past 5. 

To begin the tour we walked up some stone steps, past Kelly's glasshouse model of the Tate, through a small tunnel and across an "under-construction" sky garden, like a miniature of the one at Liss Ard Estate, and out on to a grassy field with a panoramic view of South Reen's seascape. 

Grassy walkway up through John Kelly's property,
Photo by Meg Eloise Connell, 2016
To the left I could see the subject of a series of Kelly's landscapes titled The Sticks; a monument to An Gorta Mór (The Great Hunger), titled Tree Sentinel by Susan O'Toole on the neighbouring property. Originally a piece with eighteen wooden pillars standing tall, Kelly began painting them when ten were still standing, and now only four remain.

Closer by Big Head, a cor-ten steel piece sits on the grass, a part of Kelly's series of action in rejection of the branding of the arts by the Australia Council, and his abstraction of their logo. 

Finally to the right, silhouetted against the backdrop of the islands, is Cow Up a Tree. Probably one of the world's widest travelled contemporary sculptures, it now stands surreal and striking in the Irish countryside. Kelly's favourite view of the giant sculpture is not one you'd expect; from a trampoline, hidden at ground level amongst the long grass uphill from the sculpture.
John Kelly, Cow up a Tree in South Reen,  Bronze, 1999,
Photo from JohnKellyArtist.com
Kelly says he enjoys the contrasting materials in this panoramic view from his property; the wooden Sticks, the steel Big Head, the bronze Cow up a Tree, carefully situated with the landscape backdrop of "thousands of years of geological history" that has formed the coastline and the islands.

It quickly became evident while we were talking that every piece he creates has an extensive story behind it. He says the way his work evolves "it's always based in series of works and always translates from one medium to another."

John Kelly talking at Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre,
Photo by Jason Lee, 2016
"So the kangaroo work for instance [that which includes Big Head] begins with writing. It begins with a letter writing campaign and some poetry objecting to the branding of the arts by the Australian council back in 2001 and then that moved through from writing and poetry into painting, printmaking and sculpture so you can see all the different aspects of the different mediums and techniques that I use go through that... I guess I’m always looking for things that interest me that are kind of discrete in the sense that they’re identifiably separate projects and I can go back and forward into them even across time. So I can be making a man lifting cow sculpture now in 2016 which relates to works to 1993/4 but realising it in a separate medium and different context."

John Kelly is known for injecting his clever humour into a lot of his art, but the stories behind his work also run deep and are intellectually stimulating. His "Dobell's cows", for instance, are about more than abstracted cows put in unusual positions.
John Kelly, Two Men Lifting a Cow, Etching, 2004
They're derived from two parts of a long and complex story about Australian artists William Dobell and Joshua Smith. To make a long story short, Dobell and Smith were commissioned to make papier mâché cows to disguise Australian air force fields as farms, in an effort to fool Japanese pilots flying overhead. Whether or not this actually worked is undocumented but it makes for a humorous story. In later years Dobell won a portrait competition with a painting of Smith, whilst Smith came second in the same competition. Smith and his followers complained that Dobell's portrait could not be described as such, and in fact was a caricature, as Smith was portrayed with an elongated neck and a small head. In reality, Smith did have a long neck and a small head, but the feud between the artists continued for the rest of their lives. Kelly took these two ideas and combined them, producing models of cows with the caricature-like features and created a series that runs across three decades of his work. 

Kelly is a multifaceted artist. With each area he delves into there are times of year and circumstances he prefers or avoids.
John Kelly's studio in Reen, West Cork,
photo by Meg Eloise Connell, 2016

Writing, he enjoys when he's travelling. He wrote blogs for the Guardian whilst on his residency in Antarctica, documenting and reflecting on his journey and work as he went. He says writing is "a great way to order your thoughts and make you think deeply about things that you're seeing, so that you're not just the passive viewer," and that he loves the contemplation it involves. 

When it comes to print-making, it is the technical aspect he likes best, trying to make something work "in a backwards sort of fashion." Print-making requires the artist to first create their desired final image in reverse, as the process involves transferring ink from the face of one material to another, producing a mirror image. John enjoys the technical challenge to fit his ideas into the limitations of print-making.

The collaborative element  of sculpture is his favourite part. In the case of Kelly's sculpture, predominantly large metal based creations, he has to work together with foundries in order to bring his art to life. He laughed saying he's "always trying to make the materials probably do more than the foundry will say they can do," and that "you always have to resolve problems, whether it be engineering or just technical issues with the sculptures being out in the public, so there's a real collaborative effort," which he likes. 
John Kelly's studio in Reen, West Cork,
photo by Meg Eloise Connell, 206
Finally, painting is what he loves most, "just simply because you don't need to rely on anyone... It's literally just you and the blank canvas." He says that if he did it all the time he thinks he'd go "a little bit crazy" but that there's nothing better after a long period of collaboration or technical work than "getting out into the landscape and being on your own."
John Kelly painting en plein air in Antarctica,
photo by Richard Youd, 2013
Kelly only started painting en plein air in the last three to four years but his landscape paintings have quickly become a significant part of his oeuvre and taken him from the blustery shores of West Cork to the frozen Antarctic. In 2013, Kelly travelled to the southernmost continent on the Aurora Australis, a super ice-breaker, a ship heavier than the two largest ships in the Irish Navy combined. He spent three months painting out of doors in some of the harshest weather conditions on earth and produced fifty-seven works in total. 

His adventure was partly a result of Kelly wanting to escape the "padded cell" that was his studio. He says there are so many artists and studios now that are "not dissimilar to what you'd consider a bureaucratic office" where projects are being managed as if they're part of a corporation. 

"It kind of struck me at a significant point where I was making a project for the Göteborg Biennial that I was actually managing this thing I wasn’t actually making very much of it. A big sculpture, I’d designed it, but I’d lost something. So that’s when I started painting the landscape again just to go back and just connect again."

John Kelly talking at Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre,
Photo by Jason Lee, 2016

John Kelly's A Group Show will be exhibited at Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre until the 31st of August 2016.

Kelly's next big sculpture Man Lifting Cow will be unveiled in Melbourne in September, 2016.

Piece written by Meg Eloise Connell
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