Kelli Scott Kelley, Orphaned Twins, 2009, Acrylic, paper, canvas, 48 x 30 inches
When I told my partner I was thinking about writing a piece on Kelli Kelley’s work, he said: “You know, she is probably the perfect example of the nurturing free thinker – a real maternal ideal.” It’s a profound thought, he is absolutely right.
I first met Kelli as her student in the early 2000s, and we’ve continued to work closely together as I made the awkward transition from student to artist to gallerist and eventually to an educator myself. A true kindred spirit, our sensibilities converged on a shared love of material, Jungian analysis, and a strong belief in the necessity and endurance of myth-making. And, as with any gifted educator, her aesthetics influenced me and my fellow students as much as her gentle touch and selfless positivity.
The vast majority of Kelli’s substantial body of work is surrealist at heart, but it is all clearly rooted in the exploration of materials and media: paintings, films, sculptures, prints, drawings, performance pieces, even a book (Accalia and the Swamp Monster). One can’t help but admire her unfailing tenacity and willingness to delve into new materials and create with fearless abandon. But here, I’d like to focus on one of my favorites.
In her painting, Orphaned Twins, pictured above, a female figure stands on all fours in a long prairie skirt, topless, suckling two small wolf cubs. Hovering above the figure is a long scroll of paper exiting the carriage of a manual typewriter. The ribbon of paper stretches from the writing table to a kitchen chair across a plane of implied space. Biomorphic forms dot the canvas, somewhat akin to germs in a Petri dish. A small stack of books occupies the foreground.
This piece takes its cue from The Capitoline Wolf sculpture, which depicts the mythical She-wolf suckling the orphaned twins Romulus and Remus. But, Kelli subverts the image in her piece, flipping the maternal character to human form and the twins to wolf cubs. It’s an enduring motif in her work: human/animal relationships and bonding. To my eyes, this is a love letter to the maternal archetype—the maternal ideal. I see, in some ways, an expression of doubt and a clear struggle between protection and detachment. The inclusion of the books and typewriter serve as a conduit for the continuation of a dialogue with the maternal force, which cuts a strong path through art history, from the Pieta of Christ and Madonna, to Jan van Eyck and Botticelli, to Mary Cassatt, to the drawings of Jenny Saville.
Here, the wolf, as pack animal, is the archetypal mother, both nurturing and protective. Is this woman a changeling? Is she representative of the many roles the mother must play? I think she is a shrewd embodiment of the conscious and unconscious; the incessant turmoil between reality, such as it is, and the enormous maze of illusions and symbologies just beneath the surface.
A certain maternal awareness is evident in her treatment of the ground as well. An undercurrent of domesticity recurs in Kelli’s imagery and material choices: repurposed linens, recycled fabric scraps. The undeniable footnotes to traditional women’s crafts are evident in her use of hand embroidery, stitch work, grommets, and layered ephemera. I think the purposeful nature of these recycled/repurposed grounds attests to environmental concerns that are related to the animal imagery, a canny awareness of cultural imperialism and, to an extent, a sentimental stereotype of the feminine.
It is not lost on this former student that I have selected a piece of Kelli’s that depicts young creatures receiving nourishment from a maternal entity. The influence of her role as a teacher is unmistakable in her work; the material, imagery, form and color reflect her nature as an eternal student and educator. This symbiotic dichotomy operates on many levels in her work. She is both keeper and infinite seeker.
John Michael Byrd, Pin the Tail on the Donkey, 2017, Watercolor and acrylic on transparent mylar, 30 x 25 inches
John-Michael Byrd’s work is focused on absurdity and the uncanny in an attempt to resolve the gap between the artificial and the real. He works at the School of Visual Arts and is writing a collection of prose inspired by his collages. www.johnmichaelbyrd.com