Making Space

VAI Newsheet Article 'Focus Kildare' - VAI Newsheet Article by Denis Kelly

I am a painter based in Leixlip, County Kildare. I work from a garden studio at the back of my house. It is a small space, but it suits me fine. I am lucky, as it has been ideal during lockdown. Many artists have been unable to access their usual workspaces, while I have been able to continue close to normal, despite exhibition opportunities being postponed or cancelled. In these challenging times, an online presence becomes more important for artists, in order to make work visible and to build audiences. For artists living in the region, solid support and encouragement has always been provided by Kildare County Council Arts Service.

The pandemic has made us more aware and conscious of our surroundings. It has slowed us down and forced us to think more about our physical entity as individuals and how we travel through the world. Physical distancing and spatial awareness have now become part of our everyday life. So, I find it a bit strange that I am making paintings that attempt to create the illusion of space. This is something I have explored for some time in my painting practice, though it is nothing new – it goes back at least as far as the Renaissance, painters, creating the illusion of space through linear perspective.

However, my intention is to imply ‘space’ a little differently. For me, painting is the bringing together of colour and form in a way that conveys spatial illusion not only by employing orthogonal lines and vanishing points. I try to suggest ‘space’ through a structure that is relatively simple and straight forward. For instance, an overall field of colour may arch inward, allowing it to be seen as either a foreground figure or alternatively as a receding background. To increase tension, I add something that may counter – a line, grid or rectangle. Oppositions are constantly present in the work. Accordingly, the result might infer movement as well as the suggestion of a ‘shallow space’. I often play the hard-painted edge against natural and incidental marks in the wood; large planes of colour against narrow lines. The paintings I make are inspired by aspects of the surrounding environment which usually relates to the design or built world – a window, a doorway, a railing, the edge of a roof, a letter form or a field of colour. The paintings hint at the outside world, but not necessarily in a direct way. I am interested in how form is perceived, which for me is mostly viewed through the frame of geometry. The world consists of shapes that often touch, overlap, are in front or behind, push inwards and outward, move around one another and so on. This is a starting point and the challenge is to strip away unnecessary information yet retain enough for the painting to be still interesting. Playing with these elements is important. Once commenced, the painting develops a momentum of its own, whereby decisions are made purely on a visual basis and reference to the outside world becomes less relevant.

I paint in oil or acrylic. The paint is added flatly and thinly in layers onto wood or canvas, where edges are mostly masked. The composition needs to be strong in a painting in order to hold colour and form. I am always aware of the extremities of the support and usually have this in mind when deciding on a composition. I do not usually paint around the sides as I wish to retain focus on the front. Colour choices are intuitive; a slight shift in hue can make a major difference, especially when working with minimal elements. Also, colour can reinforce ‘depth’ and convey emotion. It is often the case that an idea gets transferred to the gallery space in the form of wall-painting. A lot of consideration is given to the specific site where the work is to be presented and I regularly respond to the architectural characteristics of the gallery.

I am currently working on a solo exhibition for the RHA Ashford Gallery in Dublin, which is due to open in February/March 2021. Initially, it was scheduled for October 2020, but present circumstances have caused it to be re-scheduled. For this exhibition I have proposed a series of modest size paintings alongside a large wall painting. The nature of the gallery space allows for a large painting to be positioned at the west wall. Without revealing too much, it is proposed that the wall painting will incorporate a series of concave arcs that come together as an enclosed form. The idea relates to visual perception and how we see. The composition is derived from a previous made painting on wood which incidentally was inspired by the design of an ‘Adam Style’ fanlight. What attracts me to this particular form is the nature of concavity (and convexity) and how it can simultaneously convey figure and ground depending on one’s point of focus while also implying a dynamic sense of movement.

Occasionally, I am asked what a specific painting might mean. It seems we are constantly looking for some type of meaning or explanation, especially in abstract painting. But is it not better that painting retains some kind of mystery, some of its enigmatic quality, allowing us a space to wonder?