Like the best of contemporary dance, Marty Kelly’s recent paintings exude a dreamy ambiguity – that stuff that exists in between the words. So it makes sense that he’s finding inspiration with a couple of contemporary dancers in Barcelona – bypassing the intellect to get straight to some visceral feeling and truth.
Far from his home on Donegal’s remote and windswept Inishowen peninsula, contemporary dance stopped wandering painter Marty Kelly in his tracks while he was travelling through Switzerland a few years back. Crossing paths with Quebec’s Dave St. Pierre Dancers was a revelation to him. “It was amazing to me. There was a connection between my work, our intentions, the common music we used and were inspired by, and the dancers”. Up until then Kelly had been travelling through places like Sarajevo in search of inspiration. After this serendipitous meeting, he began to find something matching “the incredible human spirit that lasts on and burns on in these conflicts” - the truth he wanted to paint - in dancers’ bodies.
Contemporary dance is all about getting back to a deep inner truth buried within the body. Was it the pure emotion of contemporary dance, unencumbered by words that drew him in? Had his eureka moment to do with the rawness, the strange, tough beauty which he felt, correctly, was “never allowing romance to fully overtake the reality, but elements of both”? For how can you do tutu’s after contemplating atrocities, and places of conflict as Kelly did in recent years? Far from the prettiness of Edward Degas’s limbering-up ballerinas, Kelly began to immerse himself in the more unlikely stuff that contemporary dance celebrates: “…the beauty in the awkward poses and the in-between. A moment before an action or a bowed head after a clatter of movement”.
Kelly began to work in his Barcelona studio with contemporary dancers Merryn Kritzinger, and Ygal Tsur – videoing them, photographing them, and painting them. They listened to his intentions, and to his music, and danced. (Kelly couldn’t imagine painting without music – at the moment it’s classical minimalists Max Richter, Johan Johansson, John Williams, and Nathan Larson).
It’s no surprise then that through that downright honesty of muscles, physical exertion, and the sweat of contemporary dance Kelly is right in there, into the non-verbal, and the eloquently visceral. Here, where there is no posing. Kelly rubs out faces, details, smudges them, and re-creates his models into floating, glunky, out-of-focus ethereal creatures. Essences. I imagine him distilling these essences out through their movement as if in some sort of alchemical filtering process. On his canvas then elphin and otherworldly presences emerge.
Just like the power of dance revealed itself to him in composer Johann Johansson’s collaborations with dancer Erna Omarsdottir, “exposed and raw and honest, sensitive and very real art”, this is beautiful work in flesh and blood from a sure hand and mind. Sure like the hand and mind of a dancer, perhaps.
So what do I see here of contemporary dance? The interiority of it; the “right now” of it; the velocity of it; the stubborn refusal to be just “pretty”; its contrary nature; its home in the ambiguous, fudged-up in-between; its dynamic energy - its vitality.
Like in contemporary dance, the vagueness, and the moments of emptiness in these paintings, add up to an enticing open invitation to the viewer to project him or herself into the work of art.
By-passing head-energy, the intellect, the blah blah blah/ parler pour rien dire of words, Marty Kelly gets right underneath misleading externals to plug in to the power of the unspoken. Accessing the raw, visceral emotion of alive, pulsating bodies Kelly unleashes that power through these floating bodies, submerged bodies, bodies in transit, bodies in motion, and bodies without background. Harnessing the anarchic energy of contemporary dance onto his canvas, in his latest work Kelly accesses and conveys a rich and yes, incredible human spirit. That sort of thing is elusive, but through his strategies Marty Kelly has caught us a beautiful glimpse of it here.