Denis Kelly. A Sense of Order. A Sense of Disorder

by | 22 Dec, 2018

Each colour expands and lies in the other colours

To be more alone if you look at it

   G. Ungaretti, Tappeto in L’allegria, 1914-1919

Denis Kelly is an Irish abstract painter whose work explores the fundamental values of “pure-abstraction” where a lack of figurative representation is to be understood as a form of artistic expression of one’s own life experience. Each compositional element of his painting is in fact an essential part of a non-figurative vocabulary capable of transmitting through line, shape and colour the whole vitalistic scope of this artist. He accepts the risk, the accidental that appears in his paintings as an outcome of his spatial-geometric research capable of holding the casual element. The linguistic synthesis of the world that surrounds him is re-constructed through geometric shapes and a spatial analysis that give life to a structure of geometric ‘fields’, filled with bright colours that reveal perspectives and fortuitous elements that come from reality.

Untitled (Purple Mauve Green) 2018, Oil and ink on linen, 76 x 122 cm (diptych)

Untitled (Purple Mauve Green) 2018, Oil and ink on linen, 76 x 122 cm (diptych)

Panel painting has always been synonymous with pictorial tradition. Having made its appearance in ancient times as the main support for painting, it was the main pictorial support until the 16th century when it was superseded by a more manageable and economic canvas. The use by Denis Kelly of the wood panel as a support to his works denotes a certain attention to what are the pictorial traditions. What makes him an innovator and a “rebel” is, de facto, the use of a found wood surface of everyday life. These objet trouvéplay a fundamental role in his art, since they introduce an unusual element. The mix between the ancient and the more modern artistic tradition means that the artist renews the pictorial medium through this stylistic expedient. He thus generates a short circuit between the art of the past and the present through the use of repeated forms as a sort of ancient patrones, shaped figures indispensable for the repeat and exact reproduction of figurative forms. In Kelly’s case, these patrons are nothing more than geometrical matrices that allow him to reproduce the geometric figures which he organises in the space of the panel from which those fortuitous accidents emerge due to the presence of a found ‘mark’.

His pictorial language is, therefore, disinterested in aesthetic academism as vindicated by the Mark Rothko’s, one of the leading exponents of abstract expressionism: “It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what you paint as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of academicism. There is no such thing as good painting about nothing”. As todays artists are free from this last resistance of rhetorical artifice, Kelly breaks with all the traditional rules of formalism and triumphs, instead, in a research of physical and geometrical elements.

Given these assumptions, the artist decides to take another step forward by replacing the panel with the canvas on which he imprints his geometric modules, which become symbols of his own distinctive ‘mark’. In this way it is the artist himself who defines his own trademark by reproducing it manually on the canvas. With this operation it is possible to transfer a typical Denis Kelly modular pattern on to a surface, thus creating something that can potentially be reproduced indefinitely.

The artist assumes the role of demiurge and the work of art, however, does not lose its aureaeven though it is being increasingly threatened and made fragile by the advent of ‘the digital’, it preserves its own poetic and evocative characteristics. The artist underlines the importance of what is made in accordance with the rhythms of everyday life and to the authentic man-made properties, in contrast with the frenetic rhythms proposed by the contemporary age. The appropriation of one’s work and research time, of one’s own living space, allows the emergence of the artists’ vitalistic flow whose lacks of figuration is symptomatic of his research of simplicity.  From the most elementary geometrical forms emerge the details of a found panel, developed and recomposed over and over in order to find that aesthetic equilibrium capable of holding the accidental element. This is a sort of irreverent irony respect of perfection which usually distinguishes pure-abstraction. Ideas of temporality, constant research and artistic tension pushes Denis Kelly to take steps forward, re-thinking and re-working paintings in a perpetual circularity of ideas.

The dialogue that takes place externally on the canvas through perceptual stimuli and the sense of order, – which, synthetically, is a manifestation of the cognitive processes linked to every visual activity, in the Gombrichian perspective – are the bases of the relationship with the image that helps us to understand the pitfalls of perception. In turn, this helps us to understand the fundamental qualities of the artistic image, its role and its evolution. In this way we are going to build a relational model where the subject who looks at the work interprets it for relationships; perception, a process that mediates the triadic relationship between world, subject and representation, is the filter that allows us to understand the peculiarities of the representative act.

In the case of the Denis Kelly’s works the dissolution of any traditional stylistic setting, as well as the artist’s desire to use painting as a sort of inner diary where he can narrate his artistic singularity, is attributable to literary qualities of the young Ungaretti. By removing the punctuation, making poetic words empty, he creates white spaces around the words, to give the idea of their emergence from the silence of the soul. So, if it is true that Ut pictura poësis, it is possible to obtain similar effects in poetry as in painting by isolating words and/or forms. The pictorial research is spasmodic although it does not leave a trace of itself except between the stratifications of colour, a narrative and aesthetic synthesis that simplify every form. “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak”. This is an observation of Hans Hofmann’s that is actualised in the art of Denis Kelly whose pictorial idiom resides precisely in his figurative essentiality and in the marks left behind on the pictorial surface.

The canvas thus becomes a sort of stage where the artist shows through abstraction, colour and the essentiality of forms – as in the best of Beckettian screenplays – a freedom to interact on the pictorial surface and to narrate Kelly’s expressive world in a never ending recurrence.

A.H. Barr, Cubism and Abstract Art, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1936.
Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, in Illuminations, Schocken Books, New York, 1969.
E.H. Gombrich, The Sense of Order. A Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art, Phaidon Press, London, 1979.
Hess, Abstract Expressionism, Taschen, Köln, 2016.