The contours suggested by cross-planes of geometrical shapes are intuited thanks to Kelly’s clever use of colour. These geometrical compositions are used by the artist to create patterns whose 1“neoplasticism presents a truly free rhythm of form: a universal rhythm” , according to the painter Mondrian, member of De Stijl artistic movement. In addition, Denis Kelly’s art is enriched with new and unusual materials – plywood veneer, protective packaging waste from imported building materials – that become his pictorial surface, thus a part of the world enters each of his works.
In this Kelly deviates from the Suprematist and Neoplasticist movements, as to the perfection of the surface and the colouristic forms he prefers to introduce chance, a striking element in contradiction with pictorial perfection. This extraneous element is sometimes embossed on industrial wood, which he uses as a support for his paintings, or else he himself creates it as an irreverent phenomenon directed towards the observer, whose gaze is surely captured by an impeccable defect. The artist plays on these strident elements that suggest the image, and captures the attention by allowing the viewer to fulfil his agent role by interacting with form through an adaptive visual perception of a gestalt matrix of representation. Kelly’s pictorial accuracy – made up of volumetric sub-patterns of stretched-out colour that accentuate the luminary and spatial systems – is altered by the introduction of clear and expressive signs that allow him to go beyond the boundaries of minimalism to access a personified dimension of painting.
Valeria Ceregini is an Italian art historian, critic and independent curator based in Turin.
1 Author’s translation of «neoplasticismo presenta un ritmo veramente libero dalla forma: un ritmo universale» from Piet Mondrian, Ritmi universali, 2014.
Valerie Ceregini: Can you describe your research material and your painting techniques?
Colm Mac Athlaoich: My painting technique is automatic and often impulsive. I will build up a painting and proceed to over paint the composition until something begins to form. This process forces me to tackle form and colour in an improvised fashion. I need to draw from memorised research material when working in this way, not always, but most of the time.
Natasha Conway: For me, painting is a form of research. The studio should be like a laboratory, a place where I can learn and discover as I go and where accidents and unplanned things are an important part of the process. This can be quite playful or occasionally brutal and is at the core of everything I make. As an undergrad, I devoured books on painting only to reaffirm the fact that, for me, ideas come through physically making work.
Denis Kelly: My paintings are inspired by the geometry of the outside world. As a starting point, I do a sketch, take a photograph or make a note of something that I have seen. Generally, it is about being attentive to daily experience where elements of architecture or design play a leading role. A railing, a gate, a doorway or light and shadow on a building all have the potential to generate responses in my work. In other cases, a painting may come from a previously made painting, where I wish to further explore a certain nuance of form or colour.
VC: Which art historical traditions in painting most interest you?
CMA: I have a keen interest in what is occurring in painting today, particularly artists who embrace and challenge historical traditions in their work. I’m interested in the primitivism of early to mid-twentieth-century art, when form and colour were liberated.
DK: Twentieth-century modernist abstract painting has been an interest of mine for a long time. This includes movements such as Malevich’s Suprematism and Mondrian’s De Stijl or the later mid-century work of the American abstract painters: Agnes Martin, Frank Stella and Ellsworth Kelly, among others. I am intrigued by the simplicity of form and how powerful and forceful these works can be. However, I would hope my work is somewhat less exacting and stringent.
NC: I am also interested in the beginnings of early-twentieth-century abstract painting. Since I was a student, I’ve been very interested in Paul Klee, in the Paris school, lyrical abstraction, Cubism, Braque and of course Picasso. These influences are often reflected in the work I make. I’m equally interested in contemporary painting. Nothing excites me more than fresh paint in paintings that I haven’t seen before, or when someone does something inventive with a very old language. A Richard Tuttle assemblage can be as interesting to me as Picasso’s work. I enjoy the idea that painting’s history is cyclical rather than linear.
VC: As a painter, how do you approach formal elements like composition, colour, palette and surface?
CMA: I believe most people have a built-in colour palette and composition setting, which may change from time to time but is always there. I find myself referring to mine subconsciously a lot, but I’m conscious that there are some blatant influences from artists like Bonnard, Vuillard and Gauguin that I’m not even going to try to hide.
NC: My materials are simple and fairly traditional. I use oil paint on linen or wooden panels. The paintings occasionally have a fixture or collaged element and it’s usually something that finds me rather than something I go searching for. The collaged element echoes or counters the illusionistic space created within the painting. I’m still fascinated with that push/pull effect. Colour can be the most arbitrary or the most important element in my mind, depending on the painting. I have, in the past, worked in muted monochrome tones, but I currently have a full array of colour back on my palette.
I have great admiration for artists who use colour in powerful ways, the late Howard Hodgkin being the most accomplished that I have seen. I’m obsessed with composition; it’s first and foremost. The studio is at its best when there are many small paintings in progress and in conversation, when forms seem to migrate from one painting to another. It’s a messy, ill-disciplined process. I’ve been told that I make more interesting paintings when I don’t know what I’m doing, and I’m sure that’s very true.
VC: Colm, how important is the ‘creative subconscious’? Are there literary comparisons to Joyce’s ‘stream of consciousness’ in Ulysses?
CMA: I’m more influenced by The Third policeman than Ulysses, however I do find the creative subconscious an invaluable tool for my approach to painting. As in Ulysses, where the reader is incapable of distinguishing truth from fiction, it is important for me that the viewer interprets my work for themselves.
VC: Sometimes you place theatrical scenes within your paintings; why do you use this kind of scenic illusion?
CMA: My current work, the Dublin paintings, look at the canvas surface and explore the medium and potential in layering. This work deliberately plays with overlapping almost as a metaphor for stages of thought. Stages of the painting play out like props used in theatre.
VC: What does abstract painting mean for you? Is it a spontaneous and intuitive act, devoid of any premeditation?
CMA: I’m interested in the painting process as a mobiliser of ideas and action. The various techniques and rudiments that exist within my practice are a means to the end. For me, abstract painting draws on all aspects of my practice – narrative, composition, colour and form – at the same time.
NC: For me, abstract painting is largely spontaneous. I do of course have ideas for a composition, mood, tone or form I want to use. However, this plan invariably changes, evolves and takes on a life of its own. Ideas are lost and found through this process. While it can be challenging to not know where you will arrive, it’s also exciting and it’s the reason I paint. I believe that painting can do what music and poetry do in visual form: it can be engaged with both emotionally and intellectually. The painter Jonathan Lasker wrote an essay in 2001 about painting and its relationship to technology and the human metabolism. It stuck with me and is more relevant right now than it was when it was written. Analogue all the way.
VC: Denis, you are a non-figurative painter but, rather than abstract, free brush strokes, your painting style is quite rigorous, with an emphasis on tonal balance and spatial equilibrium. Can you describe your painting process and your approach to composition, colour palette and surface?
DK: The process is usually rigorous as well as laboriously planned, though I would like to think that there is an element of playfulness and wit coming through. I sometimes like to interrupt the ‘seriousness’ with a twist of sorts. The support material will often do this for me. I normally use a manufactured lightweight plywood veneer originally used as outer protective packaging for construction industry products. A large percentage of this wood reveals the history of its transportation – abrasions, indentations, tears – along with partially erased lettering, which is often retained in the final composition. My painting technique is systematic and ‘hard-edged’, and is juxtaposed against the poetic characteristics of the wood material. The idea is to create tension and achieve some type of illusionist space while maintaining equilibrium across the pictorial plane. Conversely, the undulating nature of the found wood surface encourages episodes of chance, which allow the paint to creep through. Colour is mostly intuitive and often goes through some ‘testing’ on smaller pieces of wood or paper until a balance is achieved. Colour theory – notably complimentary, analogous or monochromatic use of colour – often plays a part.
Valeria Ceregini is an Italian art historian, critic and independent curator. She is currently writer-in-residence at Pallas Projects/Studios, as part of the INI European internship programme.
Colm Mac Athlaoich is an Irish artist working in Dublin whose practice focuses on the convergence of painting and printmaking methodologies. His solo exhibition, ‘Traveling Without Moving’, ran at Pallas from 6 to 8 July 2017.
Natasha Conway is an Irish artist living and working in Dublin who works on small scale in oil on linen or wood panel. Her interest is in the language of abstraction, its history and its current evolution, in pictorial devices. Her solo exhibition, ‘Paintings’, will be presented at Pallas from 25 to 30 September 2017.
Denis Kelly is an Irish artist who makes abstract paintings characterised by hard edge colour motifs, predominantly painted flat on wooden surfaces. His solo exhibition, ‘Impeccable Defect’, will be presented at Pallas from 18 to 21 October 2017.
STRUCTURE/VOID was an exhibition of paintings by Irish artist Denis Kelly, shown in the McKenna Gallery at the Riverbank Arts Centre, Newbridge, running until December 17th. It contained a site-specific wall painting, along with twelve abstract coloured compositions painted on found wood. The show was a result of Kildare County Council Emerging Visual Artist Bursary Award 2015; as well as the bursary each winner is given a year to produce new work to exhibit at the centre.
The works are Kelly’s response to the built environment and wider ‘designed world’ around him, especially the forms of Modernist architecture. He simplifies and plays with fragments of objects – gates, railings and signage – alluding to forms and objects, rather than representing or replicating. He uses colour in hard-edged, geometric forms, generally painted flat, with subtle indentations due to the uneven surface of the wood.
The wood on which Kelly paints is generally thin plywood, often the packaging by-product of sheet wood used in the building industry. Kelly is interested in the graphic letter forms of this plywood; its unique patina, knots, abrasions and indentations remain evident through the painted surface he applies. He is interested in the play between oppositions. including the ‘figure’ of the painted form and the ‘ground’ of the wooden surface; the geometry of the forms he abstracts from the spaces and objects around him and the organic world of the painting’s background surface.
Before he completed an MFA in painting at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, Kelly worked as a graphic designer. Artist Maser also studied Visual Communications (at Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology) and had his first solo show in Dublin, Foreign Language, MASER – solo presentation of new work, at the Graphic Studio Gallery, running until December 3rd. This was part of the View Festival in Temple Bar. Maser is known for his street art around Dublin and beyond, including the ‘Repeal the 8th’ mural painted on the front of the Project Arts Centre in Temple Bar, which generated much attention – and some controversy – earlier in the year.
The show contains a series of fine art prints and etchings,examples of the woodblocks and copper plates Maser uses in his print making, as well as a framed panel showing the layers of transparent plastic and coloured card he uses to build up these compositions. A palette of eight ink colours (as well as black) was used to generate around 35 colour combinations. Maser also painted the gallery shop front with a chevron-type pattern, taking his bright colours out to the darkened, arched lane way of Cope street, connecting the public realm with the domain of the art gallery.
Like Kelly, Maser’s prints use geometric abstraction, but combine more figurative elements, such as the outline of a outstretched arm or hand (forms taken from old body building magazines), referencing street art. Maser has also made large scale installations around the world, including a recent project in Liberia where local people transformed an existing basketball court and adjacent building into a large, interactive, brightly coloured, three-dimensional mural.
To speak about the art work and in order to gain an understanding of it, I need to revert to the ancient Greek mind and in particular to Plato. Greeks interpreted the universe from the perspective of order. Plato saw the universe as a perfect expression of idea and form. The platonic forms are changeless absolutes, timeless and they underlie concrete reality amidst the chaos of life. These principles included the mathematical forms of geometry and here we have a concrete expression of these forms in a work of art.
Each piece is an expression of the artist coming from the lived experience of life, the world and the environment – and his interpretation of it. One can say that the work has space as its foundation and time as its path. These two intersect as they do in life, they enclose shared territories. Space gives us the beginning of the world and is infinite. Time sets a limit, a boundary – a hard edge within the mystery of life. One cannot explain life but one can express it within the living of it. The life of an artist is given to the expression of experience – and experience is the soul. These works express simplicity – a honing has occurred, they are stripped to fundamentals, ordered but also open to the unexpected, this unexpected engages the viewer and challenges one to find meaning. There is a simplicity that is subtle, it is playful in that it holds a celebration of life. In having space as a foundation – a field of colour that has a rhythmic movement of time across it, a figure and ground relationship that is poetic – the work brings feeling and imagination to bear on reality, on the hard edge of form and life. A found piece enhances the artistic journey – a surprise find on the way, it creates a possibility and becomes a challenge to reason. It is the surprise that life throws up and one allows it to be in its individuality.
Denis takes the elements that are in the world and plays with them, his focus is on geometric forms, his delight in space, seeing beauty in an angle, a line, a rectangle and placing it in a field of colour, throwing a shadow, playing with a sea of blue, allowing a story by a yellow pool, shifting a tension, hearing an echo as in the response to the architectural space of the gallery.
Denis Kelly’s work in the corner room at the back of the building are a mixture between paintings and small sculptural objects developed from a fascination with dead spaces found in the architecture of a building such as locations under stairs or acute angles, what Germans refer to as dead corners. He explores these spaces and the geometric shapes they produce to examine the tensions created by opposing and contradictory elements – figure/ground, control/chance, construction/destruction, and revelation/concealment. These dead spaces reveal something of the inevitable unpredictable elements of an architectural structure. These elements of waste or surplus occur where other elements designed with a particular utility such as a staircase or supporting pillar come together for practical reasons and the result is a space that serves no purpose and cannot be practically utilized. To explore these elements through painting exposes the tensions found between the intentional and the unintentional. The planning and the execution of any project that inevitably falls under the influence of chance. The paintings that at first look like quiet geometric and rational exercises reveal incidental bleeds of paint that come due to the influence of the supports, raw pieces of wood, found objects that are in themselves surplus elements of a building’s construction. The installation of the work incorporates an awareness of the elements of the cable trunking and electrical sockets on the walls even the windows look out onto the upper stories of adjacent buildings that reflect the shapes in the paintings particularly when the sharp sunlight casts rigid diagonal shadows across the grey plaster of the building next door. In such minimal and rigidly geometric work every element holds a significance no matter how miniscule, from colour to form and substance. As in the spaces of habitation where we locate ourselves, the more aware we are of the intricacies of the horizon and the limits of perception the better equipped we are to plot our onward journey and our escape from the labyrinth of the present.