United Kingdom/Australia born 1965
Yellow head 2008
A painter and sculptor who has been long associated with absurdist imagery of model cows suspended upside down in the branches of leafless trees, John Kelly has enjoyed a stellar international career that has seen the installation of his monumental sculptures in such notable locations as the Champs Elysées in Paris, Mecklenburgh Square in London and, closer to home, in Melbourne’s Docklands.
The artist was born in Bristol, UK in 1965. In the same year his family emigrated to Australia, settling in suburban Melbourne. Kelly’s initial art training was at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology but subsequently, from 1996 to 1997, in London at the venerable Slade School of Art.
Invariably, both Kelly’s paintings and sculpture are infused with a sense of irony that is often related to his interest in Australian art history, notably the history of 1940s modernism in this country. Kelly’s signature cow imagery, for example, derives from his research, as student, into the use of camouflage in the Second World War, and specifically the unverified account of the how William Dobell – later acclaimed as one of Australia’s best known painters – was charged with making papier mache cows intended, notionally, to deceive Japanese pilots into mistaking Australian military bases for farms. Kelly’s box-like, camouflaged cows are amongst his most popular creations.
Another historical source for Kelly’s familiar imagery, is a 1939 painting by celebrated modernist Sidney Nolan. Titled Boy and the moon Nolan’s painting depicts a simple outline of a featureless yellow head seen against a night sky. On first appropriating this motif, Kelly inverted it (as he frequently does with his cows) so that it might be interpreted as a light bulb. Later variations on this theme are evocative of other kinds of featureless faces or heads, such as in this softly-contoured, toy-like head which is a unique cast.