VAN Critique May/June 2014: Robert Kelly at Droichead Arts Centre

Robert Kelly, The Space Between With Triangles

Robert Kelly
Droichead Arts Centre, Drogheda
9 March – 25 April

‘Interconnectedness’, the title of Robert Kelly’s exhibition of abstract prints at the Droichead Arts Centre, alludes not only to the visual links created between works through the repeated use of plates, but to the persistence of motifs and themes that have informed his practice since the 1970s. Geometric forms and grid patterns are infused with less taut characteristics to explore the tension between order and chaos in a modern-meets-postmodern interplay. Hidden spaces, perception and the impact of time and motion are also pitched within a resonating set of relationships.

The works on show span four years of output and show variety in both technique and aesthetic as a counterpoint to cohesion in themes and to some extent formal content. A set of four sugar-lift etchings with Pop Art leanings, entitled Liminality in CMYK, manipulates cyan, magenta, yellow and key (black) to explode the illusion of unity promoted by commercial four-colour printing. Rather than align the chromatic elements, Kelly applies them in various overlapping combinations, creating entities that are at once graphic and calligraphic, gestural and structured.

This chimes with the artist’s stated wish to celebrate the unique character of print processes, while deconstructing and laying them bare, referencing spaces that would otherwise elude perception. Both Sides Now, a lithograph featuring chine collé collaged elements, harnesses this idea. It comprises a work printed with the same component back and front, aligning either side of the midpoint, like the folded paintings that teach children about symmetry. It takes close observation to detect the tonal differences, which demonstrated that the reverse of the paper had been printed – drawing attention to a place that would otherwise go un- noted.

A small but important component of Liminality in CMYK is a latticework of squares, which, to varying degrees, anchor the imagery across the suite of works, but in themselves are rough-hatched and destabilised by competing elements. Such allusion to ‘the grid’ is a keynote in other works, though sometimes only conceptually, through the deployment of horizontal and vertical dynamics.

Robert Kelly, The Space Between With Circle, Square, Triangle
Robert Kelly, The Space Between With Circle, Square, Triangle

In The Spirit of Amergin, a trio of distinct soap- ground etchings, vertical forms derived from the incised marks on Bronze Age pottery are married with (possibly landscape-inspired) horizontal compositional devices and mark-making. The intrusion of the former into the latter conveys a timeless tussle between order and disorder, while the deployment of a sombre palette evokes a sense of deep history.

Most significant among the remaining exhibits is a recent body of work that provides clear evidence of process-led decision-making and the evolution of an idea. 3D elements are incorporated through printing onto folded paper, which is then opened to reveal hidden parts, articulating the artist’s interest in unseen spaces. In The Space Between with Triangles, where both folded paper and background are printed in carborundum, the predominant element is a sharp-edge yellow triangle derived from a card template. This shape was then overprinted from carborundum in a complementary colour, after the fold was opened.

The resulting visual deconstruction of a geometric form associated with mathematical rigour and certitude is advanced in The Space Between with Triangles, Circles and Squares, through slight movement of the inset paper; because the crisp geometric shapes bled onto the background, the movement caused them to mis-register, further undermining their integrity and referencing a tension between reality and illusion.

Observed from a distance, given their three- dimensionality and the alchemy of complementary colours, these works seem calligraphic, even graffiti- like. Placed on the opposite wall, the largest of the series, The Space Between with Squares, encourages this viewpoint. In this work, the artist offsets the ‘inset’ to reveal a misshapen, blind-embossed square with the imprint of the folds – an inspired move. In another positioning manoeuvre, the creases in The Space Between with Circles I, II and III (an etching and carborundum series) are exploited to comment on perception. Placed at staggered intervals and arranged on the basis of suitability for viewing from above, on the level and below, time and motion are introduced to the process.

A collection of standalone 3D works is displayed in glass cases. These included printed- paper sculptures, which merge origami with complex geometric forms, such as the hexaflexagon favoured by school-age girls. These were flanked by Chinese Whispers I and II, lithograph-printed artist books shown tumbling from their covers to reveal their visual narratives.

On a final note, a chance encounter with the artist provided valuable insight into nuances of technique and intention that would otherwise have been difficult to glean from the work. This enrichment of the viewing experience would ideally have been extended to all visitors through well-chosen text. The absence of such material is understandable given the expense of mounting an exhibition in straitened times, but it would have helped to build the audience for print, through revealing the processes behind works by an artist clearly immersed in its versatile and investigative potential.

Susan Campbell is a freelance art writer and visual artist.


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