The art that made me: Deborah Kelly


Deborah Kelly. Image © Nick Cubbin

In The art that made me, artists discuss works in the Art Gallery of NSW collection that either inspire, influence or simply delight them. This selection by Deborah Kelly first appeared in Look – the Gallery’s members magazine.

‘Hands and arms and eyes and hair and fabric and jewellery… I’ve been collecting the same things since I was a child,’ says Deborah Kelly of her paper cut-outs. ‘A lot respond to my exposure to Renaissance religious art, because I spent 13 years in a Catholic convent school full of copied classical pictures in giant, gilt frames – that I still love. Some of my best work descends directly from fake Renaissance paintings.’

Kelly’s collages feature in the Gallery exhibition Here we are. Her Venus variations* 2014–15 meld different imaginings of the idealised female body from art history, ancient fertility idols such as the Venus of Willendorf and the pages of fashion magazines, shifting the female nude away from a passive externality to reveal playful inner worlds of introspection and female desire

AGNSW collection Lin Onus Fruit bats 1991
AGNSW collection Lin Onus Fruit bats 1991

Lin Onus Fruit bats

In 1982, I was a cartoonist on a community newspaper in Melbourne. I ended up having to design the newspaper and then I ended up having to write stories, which was pretty confronting for a cartoonist. One of the first stories was interviewing Lin Onus. It was my first meeting, really, with a proper, serious artist who was using his work to reclaim hidden or lost history.

He was making a series of works about Musquito, a black bushranger whose story has been supressed as part of the ongoing dispossession of Aboriginal people and their histories. It had never occurred to me that art could be so important to a community constituting itself. I really came to love his work.

Every time this work is out, I am so happy, because it really is gorgeous. I guess it has become even more important because of the terrible threat climate change represents to bat populations, and climate change is just getting going. It’s such an emergency and it’s so weird that we’re not all hands on deck.

AGNSW collection Martha Rosler Untitled – Cargo cult (from Body beautiful – a.k.a. Beauty knows no pain) circa 1967-1972, printed circa 2000
AGNSW collection Martha Rosler Untitled – Cargo cult (from Body beautiful – a.k.a. Beauty knows no pain) circa 1967-1972, printed circa 2000

Martha Rosler Untitled – Cargo cult
(from the series Body beautiful – a.k.a Beauty knows no pain)

I did a big residency with Martha Rosler in 2001. This and another of her works Hot house, or harem 1966–72 have been extremely instructive to me, partly because they are formally so innovative. I used one of her works from the Body beautiful series as the direct inspiration for probably my most critically successful work LYING WOMEN 2016 (AGNSW collection).

I’m not an alien. I’m totally implicated in this visual economy of how women are supposed to look and I have a strong desire to obey all the strictures. I’ve spent my whole life trying to be disobedient, but you know, it’s a work in progress learning to disobey the kinds of rules that Martha is making such a boisterous mockery of. The slim, able, cis white woman as the pinnacle of beauty is exported around the world in industrial quantities, and we have consumed it avidly. The primping now is much more intensive. Now every millimetre of a woman’s body is capitalist real estate in a way, and there are so many requirements for how to keep nice every bit.

AGNSW collection Unknown, after Raphael Madonna della Sedia 19th century
AGNSW collection Unknown, after Raphael Madonna della Sedia 19th century

Unknown (after Raphael)
Madonna della Sedia

One of my works is a 37-piece portrait series called The Miracles. Each image is based on a Renaissance Holy Family portrait of disputed authenticity, or a copy – paintings that have been questioned for their ‘realness’ in a way that parallels how queer families are questioned. All the children portrayed in that work are miraculous: they’ve all been ‘immaculately conceived’.

I began The Miracles at a time when Pope Benedict was insulting queer and other non-traditional family structures repeatedly. So, it started off as a riposte to the Pope, but it ended up being a kind of religious work, because the people in the portraits ended up so beautiful, so dignified, so sweet – so holy.

This particular copy of a Raphael is important to me because I used a print-out of it to guide staging the work’s central portrait. The whole task was to make everyone look like lamps. That very unidirectional light is partly why Renaissance paintings seem so sacred in our visual imagination, as well as the beautiful new pigments people were inventing then in oils – all that glorious richness. This is a very good fake, ’cos boy there are some crummy ones.

AGNSW collection Arthur Boyd (Illustration for Peter Porter's poem 'Echo's farewell') 1983-1984
AGNSW collection Arthur Boyd (Illustration for Peter Porter's poem 'Echo's farewell') 1983-1984

Arthur Boyd (Illustration for Peter Porter’s poem ‘Echo’s farewell’)

Because I started as a cartoonist I really love that black and white tradition; that graphic power. The gift Arthur and Yvonne Boyd left to the nation, Bundanon, has been incredibly important for my development as an artist. I’ve been there several times now. You can see the hill in this work from Bundanon. It’s this really special bit of landscape, and it’s in so many of his works.

I’d never had a studio until 2008 when I was invited to a residency there. For the first time, I got to survey the massed material I’d been cutting out since I was a schoolgirl in the 70s. In 10 days I made 14 new major pieces.
I could finally see what I was working with;
it was so exciting.

I’ve spent a lot of my life too paralysed to
do my work. Sometimes, I’m overwhelmed that maybe it’s not going to be the best work, so I can’t start. But looking at all the works Boyd left to Bundanon made me realise you can’t just fast-forward to your best work. You have to go through the ordinary ones. That was a powerful learning experience.