32. JOHN KELLY
It is often remarked that there is something distinctly Australian about Kelly’s cow series of paintings and sculptures. This at first seems quite odd, because the cow is not an Australian native animal and Kelly was born in England. However, it is not the cows as such that embody Australia, but the fact that they are stacked up, piled together or, more tellingly, that they are sometimes oddly suspended in trees. To the collective mind in Australia,
this stands as a potent reminder of the power and danger of severe floods and drought, and it is this that strikes one as identifiably Australian.
During the second World War, the Camouflage Section of the Australian Defence Force employed many Australian artists – the Adelaide artist Ivor Francis (1918-1986) was one, the Sydney artist William Dobell (1899-1970) was another, as well as the Melbourne artist Arthur Boyd (1920-1999). Dobell’s task, however, was very different from most. Dobell was employed in making life-size painted papier-mâché replicas of cows and moving them about field airports in the hope of fooling any Japanese pilots who may potentially fly over the area. It was a strange and absurd bureaucratic folly that revealed an eccentric mentality. For Kelly, this was a bizarre, head-shaking and demeaning state of affairs that showed an insulting disregard for art and artists. Kelly became artistically fascinated with this obscure and peculiar aspect of Dobell’s military experience and he started painting a series of stylised papier-mâché cows, usually painted in dark tones and lighter stripes. These cows form jarring juxtapositions with the landscape and their shapes and placements seem to form a recurrent and persistent motif in Kelly’s mind. It is as though the artist is working through various permutations of the motif, in sculptures and paintings, to explore the artistic potential and range of its formal and compositional variations. He is fastidious with his work, anti-establishment in temperament, and maintains a wry humour that reveals itself mainly in interviews. Of his work Kelly has said the following:
Ideas derived within an evolutionary framework, beginning with William Dobell and the strange camouflage scheme that he was involved in during WWII, are what drive my work. Through using this narrative and adding new elements I have created a multi-layered structure of ideas. This evolution works on a slow time scale that is at odds in today’s fast consumer culture where products need to be refreshed and changed on a continual basis. Paradoxically we have reached a point where if anything becomes ‘fashionable’ it is immediately unfashionable because of its fashionableness. Therefore it will be replaced by the next big thing until that is also replaced and so on and so on. An artist such as Morandi, whose main body of work consisted of painting bottles, would have little chance of recognition in this world view.1
The image of cows piled together, as in this example, or suspended in a tree, as in Cow up a Tree 1999 opposite Melbourne’s Etihad Stadium, first came to Kelly in 1995 on a trip to Barcelona. Kelly explains:
Cow up a Tree first appeared in my sketchbook whilst I was travelling… I was contemplating what would happen during a flood on Dobell’s airfield. I had thoughts of papier-mâché cows floating away and being stuck in the trees. Since then I have found other Australian artists who have used the idea of an object up a tree in their work, such as Sidney Nolan and Russell Drysdale.2
John Kelly’s painted bronze and steel sculpture Form and Function of 2003 arises from all these ideas and is an accomplished and most characteristic example of the artist’s work.
1. Kelly, J., ‘John Kelly – artist profile’, Artlink, Vol. 22, No.1
2. Watkin, F., ‘Cow up a Tree – John Kelly’, Newsletter of the Contemporary Sculptors’ Association, September, 1999
Kelly, J., ‘John Kelly – artist profile’, Artlink, Vol. 22, No 1.
Martin-Chew, L., ‘Rebirth of Sculpture in Australia, Embracing the Third Dimension’,
Art & Australia, Spring, Vol. 40, No.1, 2002
Watkin, F., ‘Cow up a Tree – John Kelly’, Newsletter of the Contemporary Sculptors’ Association, September, 1999
Associate Professor Ken Wach
Dip. Art; T.T.T.C.; Fellowship RMIT; MA; PhD
Former Principal Research Fellow
and Head of the School of Creative Arts,
The University of Melbourne