Kevin T. Kelly has created a new body of paintings for this exhibition at Alan Avery Art Company in Atlanta, and they are his most complex, his most biting, his most urgent in his long career as one of this country’s foremost painters. Long associated with a neo-Pop style, which he probably learned in his years in New York as Tom Wesselmann’s studio assistant, Kelly, in these paintings, examines and critiques an America so over saturated with images from the media (movies, television, the computer, newspapers, magazines) that cartoons and pornography and violence become grandly equivalent in a culture gone wild with visual culture on overload. These paintings may be said to follow a kind of collage format, wherein layers of images bump into one another, bounce off each other, are thrust forward at the viewer (neatly showing his understanding of collage as a medium: the perfect concept for a culture so fragmented by random images that their meaning may just be the prurient excitement they engender).
Kelly also manifests a complex understanding of how Abstract Expressionist paintings can be reformatted into Pop—Pop Art was considered a total break from AE at its inception; these are Kelly’s first “allover paintings”, where almost no space is left unfilled, wherein images are layered one atop the other, or overlap each other; each painting is a pastiche of imagery, equating sometimes important images from the news (“Ship of State”), wherein what appears to be a refugee on a raft (who could just as easily be an image from a movie) is escaping from some war or other. Who’s our Savior from mass confusion? Superman appears, as he does often in these paintings: would we know, at this point in the 21st century, any difference between a cartoon and “reality”; can we tell the difference between sexual pornography and the headless “emcee” who appears in quite a number of these paintings, sometimes as a newscaster, sometimes as a magician, sometimes as a TV host? Have we devolved solely into a passive audience, receivers of images, confirming Marshall McLuan’s idea that “the medium is the message”? Are we existing just to be entertained? And, if so, what is the influence of the media on us? Kelly proposes that we are literally expecting Superman to rescue us and/or to entertain us in our insatiable need for entertainment and for an invented superhero. In “Predictive Programming”, a suburban-looking woman “presents” “Wonder Woman” to us. Does she want to be Wonder Woman? Is this a biting statement on the devolution of contemporary feminism into cartoons and fantasy? Images from pornography appear throughout these paintings, usually as spread-eagled womens’ legs with porn-style heels on their feet, thrust at the viewer as porn does (that the thrusting of these images at us comes from Cezanne is another Kelly tour-de-force).
Violence appears in all of Kelly’s new paintings, but they are usually images, again, from the media, sometimes of men, sometimes of women holding guns, so that the viewer can’t determine whether it’s all entertainment being depicted, or whether we’re still able or capable of understanding the differences between media culture and what passes for reality in a media-saturated culture. And the backgrounds of all the paintings show faces and/or eyes, where Kelly proposes a kind of constant prurience, the idea of watching and being watched, which is probably at the heart of pornography’s intentions. Pinocchio (nose long because of chronic lying) and Superman and Wonder Woman and that headless “host” appear frequently throughout Kelly’s new paintings. He flirts with two and three dimensions throughout this body of work, which enhances the sense of constant movement in the paintings, from image to image, in a kind of painterly visual, cultural feedback loop: his paintings, thus, are able to critique the role of the media in our lives as if each painting is a collage of media imagery. And since so much contemporary art, particularly in nonprofit spaces, proposes to lecture and hector us about Social Justice, Women’s Issues and the like from a leftist/progressive perspective, Kelly is offering a different, powerful critique of American media culture and its influences on us, making his work the rare paintings that critique American popular culture from a non-“progressive” perspective: that alone is both a gift from the artist and makes this body of paintings both rare and exceptionally effective as postmodern critique. Kelly also proves in these paintings that the Pop style of painting can be used in ways other than the celebration and/or critique of consumer culture and of capitalist materialism. These paintings’ greatness lies partially there: Kelly both undermines our assumptions about Pop art and its intentions while integrating other styles from 20th and 21st century media culture for political purposes rarely addressed in contemporary visual culture. His frequent use of red, white and blue both looks back to their primary role in twentieth century art while proposing that these quintessentially American colors—those of our flag–have been inverted for other purposes by a voracious media culture that’s eating us alive.