Reading: Abstraction and its Processes

Wendy Kelly Oblique 2

Wendy Kelly
Oblique 2
Full view and detail
Mixed technique on canvas
Note: photographs taken at an angle to reduce reflections. Canvases are rectangular

I recently mentioned Wendy Kelly’s work, seen in the exhibition Grid Line Pattern: a serial approach (see 4-Oct-2014). I have now read Kelly’s book Abstraction and its Processes: An historical and practical investigation into abstract visual language.

I believe the book is basically Kelly’s PhD thesis, combined with a body of artwork that came from her studio research.

Wendy Kelly Undercurrent

Wendy Kelly

kelly_04That body of work included a number of the exhibited pieces I saw, and it has been fascinating to read Kelly’s comments and the way in which she positions the works in her research and interests. For example of Undercurrent (shown above and detail right) she wrote it “was a development on the theme of the pattern of text, in this case without the use of collage. A large work deeply red over green work, the horizontal rhythms are cut into columns, much as text is printed in columns. The vertical rhythms are more even, the aim being to unify the composition and create movement across the surface. It also provides a contrast to the first layer, and thus engages with the effect of the changes of light. The palette is limited, and the surface altered by the removal of the top layer of threads to expose a subtle change in tone” (Kelly, 2011, p. 165).

I have been so excited reading and thinking about this book, I find it difficult to know what to write here. For a start there’s the overall academic approach. Kelly begins with a detailed presentation on relevant art history to put her work in context. She brings it up to contemporary work by (many!) artists, and shows how her process, materials and motivation relate. I think that approach is one of the things OCA is trying to develop in us, and it’s something I’m really interested in – not just the work, but the intent/concept behind it, the connection to one’s other work, and connections to the wider world of art making.

Kelly places her work within what she terms the fourth generation of Abstraction. The first was at the beginning of the 20th century in Europe, there was often a spiritual/religious element of a striving towards purity. The second generation was in America roughly 1930 to mid 50s and culminated in the Abstract Expressionist movement, with huge gestures, autonomy, and a modernist/formalist theoretical rhetoric. The third generation refers to the period of Minimalism and Conceptualism, seeking “a purity of means through both methods and concepts” (Kelly, p. 8), leading to a declared “death of painting” and a reset in Post-Modernism. Kelly’s fourth generation is now, impure rather than pure, removed from formalist interpretations, marginalised in current art thinking, and encompassing multiple different approaches.

In my final written review for Understanding Western Art I struggled with all the different ideas behind abstract art. I thought I’d chosen a reasonably sized topic with “The Stripe”, but it exploded on me – much, much more than I could deal with in the timeframe and word count. Reading Kelly’s book has given me a little context and flow for the different approaches. A fellow Australian, Kelly spends time on some issues specific to Australia’s development which really resonated with me. She included lots of examples of Australian artists, so I’m likely to be able to see a range of work in person. Kelly also spends quite a bit of time on Agnes Martin, who I included in my Review and whose work fascinates me. I’d love to see it in person (sadly a quick search didn’t find any examples in Sydney, and none held by the National Gallery are currently on display).

Kelly gives a lot of detail about her own work, which “falls into the two streams of the exploration of abstraction and of material process; the first being ‘almost monochrome’ reductive linear thread works and the second being collage works” (Kelly, p. 144). Kelly is drawn to geometric rather than figurative abstraction. There are so many links with textile work.

Wendy Kelly Feather

Wendy Kelly

Kelly writes “A variation of the process of weaving, albeit in a non-literal sense, is a key to my chosen method of working” and “[weaving] is grid based and can produce intricate patterns and designs” (Kelly, p. 128). Kelly uses thread – ordinary sewing thread – in weaverly patterning to make marks and create texture. When I saw the works in person I thought she stitched the threads through the canvas, but I gather she actually cuts short threads and gessos them individually in place on a prepared stretched canvas. Layers of colour are applied and scrubbed back – she uses oil paint which gives her “the ability of stain, glaze, scumble, drag impasto, scrub back and use inert pigments on the surface” (Kelly, p. 129). Kelly may then rip some of the threads off the canvas, leaving traces in colour and texture.

Feather (detail)

Feather (detail)

Some of this reminds me of shibori – stitching and compressing fabric before dyeing to create resists and patterning in colour. Her reductive processes could correspond to discharge and overdyeing. I think felting, including nuno felting, can provide complex colour layering and of course also supports slashing and other “wounding” of the surface.

However Kelly remains firmly in the realm of the painter. She works on the two dimensional surface of a stretched canvas. She experimented with commercial enamel paint and synthetic paint before moving to oil paint. She references Robert Hunter, Paul Partos, Marcel Duchamp, Eva Hesse and Sandra Selig when discussing the use of thread as a mark making tool by painters and sculptors.

Kelly has developed a visual language which allows her to share a quiet but positive response to the world – “my work aspires to offering the counterbalancing world of gentle and harmonious feeling to still the drama of turbulent times. It is the aesthetic concept of exploring the more positive, quiet and sincere emotions…” (Kelly, p. 147). She is gentle, non-demanding to her viewer – “My interest is in works that are slow to enter, yet are meant to be revisited, again and again, in different lights, and at different times or lengths of times, at the viewer’s convenience” (Kelly, p.127). So refreshing, on many levels.

I raced through this book, gobbling it up. It seems so very close to my own interests. It’s no doubt my weaverly orientation, but I think abstract work is particularly appropriate for textile work. So many of Kelly’s considerations could be introduced just as usefully in a textile-based approach. I suspect – hope – that I will be returning to this book, these thoughts, many times.

More of Wendy Kelly’s work can be seen at

Kelly, W. (2011) Abstraction and its Processes: An historical and practical investigation into abstract visual language Saarbrücken: LAP Lambert Academic Publishing (print on demand – October 2014)

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November 2014

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