Nicole Kelly’s lyrical paintings limn land as a silent witness to multiple and overlapping human narratives. Based between Sydney and France, the artist reflects on how the landscape is a repository of history and memory, etched with the experiences of people past, present and future. Avoiding grand Romantic narratives surrounding the sublimity and vastness of the land, Kelly instead engages with the intimate subjectivities that contour our world.
The paintings in Kelly’s new series ‘It remains’ were inspired by a deeply moving encounter with Ali Cobby Eckermann’s verse novel Ruby Moonlight, which triggered in the artist ‘an interest in knowledge of historical consciousness, layered upon our own felt understanding of landscapes, and how this collision affects our vision.’ In and through the works, she questions, ‘What histories are held in the landscape of which I overlay my own? What lies present but unseen? What remains?’ There is sorrow, darkness and heaviness enshrouding the land and its shadowy histories, yet at the same time there radiates something sacred and precious. This duality is given form by Kelly’s fractured marks, which collide, overlap and shatter in response to these questions. The act of scrubbing, scraping and loading over with paint becomes a process of excavation, as Kelly searches for meaning from the raw frenzy of mark making.
The paintings are cartographic constellations of emotional and psychological perception; personal vignettes that materialise moments in time and space. Analogous to unfinished maps, they trace the artist’s own spatial experiences of landscape, both in Australia and France, as well the internal environments conjured within these spaces. ‘I consider my gaze like that of a traveler, oriented and limited, both in landscapes I call home and those I visit’, Kelly explains.
The tripartite compositions – with layered strata of water, land, sky – visualise the different valencies of the landscape. Swift horizontal sweeps of paint capture ephemeral reflections dancing across the crystalline surface of water; transient realities that can shatter with the drop of a stone. There is the sense that observed landscapes have been pulled apart and pieced back together on the canvas, with shards of colour held in place by fragile marks and truncated brushstrokes. Light radiates from within the paintings – within the land itself and not outside of it – permeating the crevices between forms as negative and positive space collapses into each other. Above, the smooth sky presses down onto the land as if solid matter, threatening to infiltrate the foreground.
Within ‘It remains’, Kelly’s nine panel work Ribbon of river is a personal reimagining of Sidney Nolan’s Riverbend series. Each piece holds the story of the other, alongside its own, impacted and shaped by the panel preceding it. Kelly comments, ‘They draw from and look towards one another, but they do not sit seamlessly or entirely harmoniously. Like our landscapes, they remain unsettled.’ The works flicker in and out of the artist’s memory and imagination, with figurative imagery focusing on moments of tenderness, empathy and compassion – with another, or with the land itself. Meanwhile day turns to night, birds circle overhead, the moon moves through its cycles, rain falls and clouds clear. Weather here is a trope for time, speaking of moments that are non-linear; narratives with no beginnings or ends.
Collected and painted in France, Kelly’s new tin series layer personal experience of place and time onto objects with their own resonant histories – a material accumulation that evokes the stratification of memory. Snippets of the tins’ original imagery push through the paint, desperate to be remembered, forming a visual dialogue of revelation and concealment. As Kelly’s landscapes engulf the imagery on each tin, there is a symbolic restoration of the natural – in idyll so pertinent to our present environmental moment.
Like Eckermann’s poetry, Kelly’s paintings are open-ended and fractured, with no definitive completeness. For the artist, painting is a process of ‘liquid thought’. It is a kind of restrained stream of consciousness, gently building each narrative rather than blurting out what is most precious.