Hometown boy Kevin T. Kelly’s earlier work has been called as “Neo Pop” or “Post-Pop,” and described as “Roy Lichtenstein meets Dennis Hopper on Steroids.” Using what he calls a “hyperchromatic” palette, he juxtaposed disparate and hard-edged images to express social commentary. It’s pure Tom Wesselmann, another hometown boy, for whom Kelly served as studio assistant from 1988 to roughly 1994.
But there’s been a major shift in his work, partially precipitated by his own aging (he was born in 1960), according to William M. Welch in “The Art of Kevin T. Kelly,” published in 2014 in B the Insider – The Breitling Magazine. (The Breitling company has used Kelly’s works in its marketing, and Welch has described the Breitling boutique in New York City as “kind of like a Kevin Kelly museum.”
Kelly’s gone from wrangling canvases as large as 12’ x 12’ to those measured in inches. He’s also become a devotee of tai chi and hiking in such landscapes as the vast American West. He compares his two styles, thus, “The other (earlier) pieces were more about communicating by visually yelling. The landscapes are more about whispering.” Bombast has given way to humility.
In the artist statement accompanying his exhibition at Cincinnati Art Galleries – “Journey of the Spirit: Landscapes” — Kelly writes eloquently:
There is perhaps nothing more exhilarating than experiencing the magnificent splendor of this country on foot. In doing so, a detachment and connection occurs simultaneously. The mind slowly unplugs from the mental static and chatter of a tick-tock existence and reconnects to the eternal true source. There is a sudden palpable realization that not only is everything alive and significant, but that you are simply a cell in a giant glorious organism. The distinction between observer and the observed begins to melt. Limiting self-imposed boundaries fade away and with each and every step, you realize you are in a dialogue with the Universe whose language is metaphor and is conveyed through feeling. A new perception of reality emerges and the journey becomes a walking meditation within a waking dream.
Welch explains Kelly’s more recent work (dating to at least 2009) as being inspired by “the world where he lives (the Cincinnati area), including the pastoral scenery of rural middle America.” I was unaware of Kelly’s Pop period when I reviewed his 2012 show at the Cincinnati Art Galleries entitled “Embracing the Yin,” which featured his radical turn to “pastoral scenery,” characterized by a hard-edged stylized version of the fields and woods and Sheeler-like barns and outbuildings.
In Kelly’s latest work, the precisionist, almost paint-by-numbers distillation of landscape has ceded ground to impressionistic visions of it. Reaching back for earlier comparisons, there’s Turner’s evocations of nature so brilliantly presented in his seascapes, and, closer to our time, Hiroshi Sugimoto’s minimalistic black-and-white photographs of the sea begun in the 1908s. Some of Kelly’s most paintings (2015) are nearly monochromatic, bringing to mind color field painters, such as another hometown boy Joseph Marioni.
In Kelly’s 2015 Neuse River at Midnight, two nearly identical deep blues represent the North Carolina river below, shading from a darker blue indicating the depths of the river to a lighter shade nearer shore; the sky is starless and the dark limitless. The heavens above and the earth below are divided by a midnight blue (naturally) horizon line, which is like a horizontal Barnett Newman zip.
The work that commanded me to approach first is even less representational – a 2015 oil-on-panel painting measuring only 8” x 10” and ironically titled Scenic Byway. A sickly green mist obscures the road, which is indicated only by the middle dividing line curving into the distance. (It’s a device seen in Lisa Sullivan’ photographs shown in the “On the Road and Into the Woods” exhibition at Covington Arts, which I reviewed in the January –February 2015 edition of Aeqai.) Without that intimation of roadway, the painting could be by any number of colorists.
Perhaps mediating between Kelly’s earlier crisp presentations of the landscape, which bordered on geometric abstraction, is the 2105 Morning Fog where the scene is still discernible. The foreground of the 12” x 16” digital drawing suggests a meadow while the distant wood is screened by a scrim of thicker fog.
Kudos to Kelly for daring to move from his hard-edged visions of reality (both his hyper-realistic Pop-influenced paintings and his geometric views of “pastoral scenery”) to a poetic response to nature.
–Karen S. Chambers
“Journey of the Spirit: Landscapes by Kevin T. Kelly” through May 30, 2015, Cincinnati Art Galleries, 225 E. Sixth St., Cincinnati, OH 45202, 513-381-2128, www.cincyart.com. Mon.-Fri. 9 a. m. to 4 p. m., Sat. 10 a. m. to 3 p. m.