Born into a working-class family in the UK, John Kelly was raised and educated in Australia, and now resides in County Cork, Ireland. As a university student, he came across a small and overlooked moment in Australian art history, in which the painter William Dobell was enlisted as a camoufleur for the Australian civil corps during World War II. Camouflage is the act of concealment, and for Dobell, this was disguising RAAF bases from Japanese bombers as honest farmland; populated by his comically life-sized, painted papier-mâché cows. It reveals a moment in history where fellow fine artists, including Max Dupain, Adrian Feint and Frank Hinder, directly contributed their artistic skills to the war effort.
For Kelly, a whole visual lexicon has expanded from this absurd endeavour, with exhibitions of his paintings and monumental sculpture for the Champs de la Sculpture II, Paris (1999), La Parade des Animaux, Monte Carlo (2002), Yale Center of British Art, New Haven, Göteborg Biennale, Gothenburg (2009) and nationally for the Melbourne Docklands (2001) and Brimbank City Council (2016), Melbourne.
Until 1994, Kelly’s paintings referred to these counterfeits as ‘Dobell’s cows’. However, he reinterpreted this motif into unlikely visuals forms, unlocking the potential of its unromantic patterning by pushing iconography to its visual and compositional limits, transforming them into ‘Kelly’s cows.’ Many of Kelly’s cows are arranged in endless mazes, acrobatically entangled in gravity defying stacks, flipped upside down, wheeled away, tossed up a tree, deconstructed, half-erased, or caught in mildly provocative positions. They echo the pastiche and sense of cultural artifice explored by post-modernism, whilst doubling down upon the pictorial legacies of Western painting in which the grid, perspective, and iconography rule.
It is said the commercial importance of a pastoral painting is decided by its depicted livestock. Set against the agricultural and colonial history of Australian painting, in which cattle were traditionally the most noble of subjects, Kelly’s are manifestly unidiomatic. None of these cows are real; they are paper thin, feather weight, comically rotund with thin stretched necks, and clearly provide no agrarian yield. You never think of Kelly’s cows as livestock. A nostalgia for the bucolic is swapped for the stark tedium of the aerodrome in many of his paintings, with its occasional windsock, open sky, and razor-thin horizon line. Their cartoon-like archetypal shape also represents Kelly’s artistic genesis, a homage to his working-class beginnings from which a prize from the side of a Pura milk carton would propel his university art education.
The present lot Blocking In 2001 is namely a picture-within-a-picture, an exercise in doubling pictorial space. Displayed during Kelly's solo exhibition at Niagara Galleries in 2002, the image depicts an abstractly painted canvas propped up against a wall, creating a flattened trompe-l'œil effect. A cast shadow to the right and minimal spatial arrangement of background wall, canvas, and foreground prop, constructs this illusion. Kelly first implemented this format in a series of works dating back to 1998, aiming to explore the significance of how similar tactics of deception were employed in both perspective painting and wartime camouflage.
The artwork’s title bears its name with foundational painting technique called ‘blocking in,’ wherein the artist establishes the initial layer using sizable blocks of paint to designate the placement, colour, and tone of elements. This is also playfully mirrored in the ‘blocky’ cow patterning, rendered in an appeasing contrast of rich orange and intertwining, cubic black. Kelly's wit is showcased in the way that modest cow spots become the fabric for abstract painting, blurring the demarcation between the figurative and non-representational.
Camouflaged within the layering of spots, one can find repetitions of two cattle heads that gradually reveal themselves. Placed prominently in the foreground is the lopped off bust of one of Kelly’s cows, its head turned towards us. This scene may evoke art historical connotations, recalling the much-depicted biblical story of Judith slaying the Assyrian general Holofernes. It is also absurd, packaging up the violent drama of a history painting into a wry graphic of a papier mâché cow who has lost its head. This intentionally belies the seriousness of Kelly’s work, which adopts a thoughtful approach to Australian history, painting, and personal experience in formulating his compositions.
As Kelly states:
My intention is to create work that encapsulates the concepts and ideas that intrigue me. I take historical subjects such as Dobell’s cows … and my own personal experience to build a framework within which I can
create my own vision of things. Within this I pursue multi-layered research of concepts and ideas both visual and intellectual … I like to create works that reach beyond their absurdity to reflect something of my visual and intellectual environment.1
1. Kelly, J., in John Kelly: Cow up a Tree [exhibition catalogue], Niagara Galleries, Melbourne 1999
Tim Marvin is an emerging curator and art historian based in Sydney. He has a Bachelor of Art Theory (Honours, First Class) from the University of New South Wales, and currently holds the position of gallery registrar at Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney.