Nicole Kelly

Work for Nicole Kelly's current show at Arthouse Gallery, 'For what binds,' emerged from two residencies at the University of New South Wales's Fowler's Gap Research Centre. A visitor on unfamiliar soil, Kelly looks at the landscape with a reflexive view turned also towards her own perspective: as a guest, an observer, and an interlocutor with the land.

Certainly, a sense of wonder permeates many of these works. Pliable oils twist across the canvas, casting a glow of enchantment over the landscapes with which Kelly engages. Where the sun beats, for instance, runs blue-green tones down the descending face of a hill towards the viewer, their diagonal paths melting into a pool of warm affect at the hill’s base – Kelly looks at the landscape with tenderness; renders it gently. Wonderment, for Kelly, can also be something quicker, more mercurial. In Pattern on the earth, the landscape sits beneath a kind of painterly superscript: small, gleaming strokes which flicker across the calmer, longer lines of the hills, plains, and sky. Her relation to the land as a guest within it – surprised by her surrounds, and yet held safe within their difference – is palpable in the very materiality of her work, as well as in her handling of the paint.

Yet, to be a guest is not only to feel welcomed warmly. Kelly is attentive to the fraught history of colonising human presence in the country now called Australia, as well as the symbolic interventions enacted by landscape paining as a tradition – particularly in this Australian context. Indeed, the immediate pliability, mesmerising softness, and relenting of the landscape to the viewer’s gaze might only be a lure: we’re invited into a space, and a history, which quickly darkens once we realise where we are. Kelly pushes against the generic prescriptions of landscape, resisting stable orientation, neat order, and even the relief of the breathing space provided by an open sky. Once we sense that things are not as straightforward as we might want them to be, the soft melting of the paint suddenly becomes disorientating, the flashes of colour more like violent punctures upon the canvas and the land alike.

Kelly’s new work considers what it is to be a tenant of the land. As such, it straddles fear, guilt, and the senses of powerlessness and delight at once. It also considers the vexed position of the artist on residency, away from land that is in some sense ‘her own,’ while pushing against the idea that any land can really be subject to human ownership or control. Perhaps, indeed, the dynamics of short-term habitation called into being by the residency figure quite well the relation to land that the works propose: presence within it, and an intervention into it usually justified as ‘use,’ coupled with an understanding that our presumptions of control over it are both misguided and dangerous.

For what binds
10 – 27 February 2021
Arthouse Gallery, Sydney

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