Robert Kelly's 'The Pearl Diver and Other Stories...' opens at Charlotte Jackson Fine Art

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Robert Kelly's 'The Pearl Diver and Other Stories...' opens at Charlotte Jackson Fine Art
Tales of Lakshmi, Abundance, 2023, Mixed Media on Panel, 17 x 14 inches.

SANTA FE, NM.- There are stories everywhere. The story of the artist. The story of the magpie. The story of the stone on the beach. The story of the painting. The story of the goddess. The story of the buried city. The story of the sun-bleached bone. And our own story – which itself is really the weave of a thousand stories, flaring out, radiating around us, brushing up against the other stories of the world.

But often enough, we don’t hear them, don’t notice. Get tangled in noise, lose the thread. This is when sometimes the world reaches out to us, offering a spark, a reminder. It might be a crow landing at your feet. It might be a particular stone on a beach.

It might be a painting: Aging paper, layered, overlaid, ghosted with images and text; cut, covered, framed and highlighted by thick, sen- suous black geometric forms. Through the yellowed layers, a strangely winged figure emerges. Around him, half-revealed, half-concealed by those black forms, strange shapes and unknowable words.

This is The Pearl Diver, one of the pieces included in the eponymous exhibition, The Pearl Diver and Other Stories which brings Santa Fe native, Robert Kelly, back to New Mexico with his first exhibition here since 2012. This exhibition includes works from several different themed series (Mimesis, Tales of Lakshmi, Boneyard, Nocturne, El Senor, and Ash to Ash) though all of these are created with Kelly’s unique process.

This starts with a canvas surfaced, layer by layer, with up to 30 strata of paper, coated and affixed with a viscous polymer, gridded at right angles, and then overlaid with the special old, archival papers that Kelly finds and collects on his travels. These papers can be old movie posters, advertisements, handbills, newsletters, placards, announcements. Often, they are printed with text in a variety of languages. These papers are always faced backward so that their surface is facing toward the verso.

This, as Kelly says, is “history looking back on itself, like Vermeer painting himself, painting the woman in the window.” Finally, the piece is glazed with an oil-based medium, and then it is ready for Kelly’s oil painting of forms. The geometric forms themselves are exquisitely precise. Balanced tonally with the faded paper surfaces and yet completely integrated and responsive to the complex patterns that have been gridded and aligned beneath. There is an intricate dialogue at work between the forms and the layers, between past and present.

Metaphors abound: History’s enigma. Time’s cipher. Collage. Archeology. Palimpsests. Ghosts. Phantom limbs. The strata of a cliff-face reading off geological ages. Stone masons. Stories. And each of these metaphors is not exclusive of the others, but rather, interconnected, as in the Buddhist metaphor of Indra’s net. This net is a vast, universe-spanning web with a multifaceted jewel (or pearl) at each connection point. Each jewel in the net contains the reflection of every other jewel. And each reflected jewel contains the reflections of all the others. Infinite. A representation of how all phenomena in the universe are connected and interpenetrating.

Multifaceted and nuanced as they are, there are many ways to know Kelly’s work. Kelly’s modernist sensibilities hail back to influences such as Bauhaus, De Stijl, the Constructivists, the Supremacists. Kelly finds himself fascinated by a sort of seamless meeting place between the “highminded formalism” of Mondrian and the “soulful purity” of Morandi. However, Kelly’s roots in New Mexico could offer nearly as important a perspective on his work. The region’s layered history is palpable in its architecture and landscape. And beyond even the human history there is a significance, a something more, that seems to resonate in its natural light and colors.

This is where the experience of Kelly’s work distills toward essences. With global references and sources, with sensibility meeting precision of skill, perhaps what pulls the viewer closer is something both unique and universal. Kelly has said, “Finding a stone (on a beach walk) draws our attention through form, shape, polish and substance, and suggests a connectivity created by this momentary flash of recognition. A pause. Paintings call at us this way….”

Stories. The work of Robert Kelly offers us reminders of connectivity, pulling us back into a world of meaning, where even the most mundane objects and experiences are freighted with significance. Without being in any way narrative or figurative, these paintings act as jewels in the net – the many layers, stories, refracting, reflecting. They remind us of the mystery and complexity of the world, and of our own stories, our place within the web.

Charlotte Jackson Fine Art
–— Michaela Kahn, Ph.D.

Charlotte Jackson Fine Art
"Robert Kelly: 'The Pearl Diver and Other Stories..."
September 1st, 2023 - September 30th, 2023

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