John Kelly, Irish painter and printmaker, 1932-2006

Press Cuttings Curtain up on Theatre of the Mind

It’s been quite a while since John Kelly had a one-person show in Dublin — 1989 in fact. But now, with a fine exhibition at the Hallward, he’s broken a lengthy silence that seems, funnily enough, altogether appropriate for an artist who makes a virtue of being elliptical and oblique. And, as ever, his images are stocked with faceless figures, illegible texts.

The watercolour drawings that make up the exhibition are scenes from a theatre of the mind in which Kelly works and reworks ideas, themes and motifs that interest him — seems, to the point of obsession. Hence we have, or apparently have, episodes from the French Revolution; Rembrandt’s life; musings on the Renaissance, and then Molly Bloom.

Kelly’s critical study of the past, of history, art and literature, would be futile if it provided him with nothing more than quotations, but he is too alert and judicious to settle for those alone. Instead, there is an awareness of the urgency of learning the lessons of history and applying them to the press and bustle of life now. Those revolutionary protagonists are still raw with the knowledge of betrayal.

Perhaps what is most  striking about the work, apart from its qualities of fine draughtsmanship and exemplary restraint, is the way it imparts a sense of a very particular kind of sensibility. Its attentiveness to the past is salutary at a time when the easy option is to jettison it like so much dead weight.

Aidan Dunne, Sunday Tribune, 15.05.1994