Queensland artist Madeleine Kelly offers insights into the complex intellectual threads that informs her practice. For her latest works, Kelly combines items from her personal collection with her love of science and the natural world.
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Madeleine Kelly was born in Germany to an Australian-born father, a plant biochemist, and a Peruvian-born mother, a Spanish–English interpreter. After the family moved to Australia in 1980, she grew up in Brisbane and studied fine art at the Queensland College of Art, completing her PhD in 2013. She now works from her studio in Wollongong and lectures in painting at the University of Sydney.
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Surveying the scope of Kelly’s practice to date, a number of themes emerge. Her works tend towards abstraction and are couched in metaphors and layers of meaning, referencing canonical art and literature or exploring the ways science and language intersect. Her process is often driven by her materials: her two new works for Open Studio are inspired by objects collected over her lifetime as an artist — vintage science lab glassware in Elective Affinities 2020, and colourful sea sponges in Structural Affinities 2020. The title of the former is drawn from a novel of the same name, published in 1809 by the prolific German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In early nineteenth‑century chemistry, ‘elective affinities’ described compounds that react with each other only in certain circumstances.
‘Goethe was a poet, scientist and pantheist. He believed in life, matter and art all being interconnected. In art college, we learnt about the Goethe colour triangle, a system of classifying different colour palettes according to different subjective moods. But the fact that he was also a scientist, and that he classified clouds and other natural phenomena, always appealed to me. His Elective Affinities is a romance novel about attraction and repulsion, and the dynamics between different couples. I decided to call my work Elective Affinities because this idea of attraction and repulsion is intrinsic to working with materials.’
Kelly began collecting the scientific equipment that appears in Elective Affinities at the age of 20, when her father salvaged various glass vessels from a lab that closed at the Queensland University of Technology. ‘After that,’ she added, ‘I would keep my eye out for them wherever I went. I got some special ones a few years ago when I did a residency in Leipzig’.
She is also an avid collector of sea sponges and is fascinated by their internal structure. ‘Sponges are the only animal in the world that, if broken down to the level of their cells, can reassemble themselves into an entirely different configuration. It’s something that unequal human societies could mimic’, Kelly says. Her earliest specimens are from Brooms Head in northern New South Wales. These days, she rescues any that wash up on Wollongong’s shoreline. ‘As an artist, I’ve always got ideas on the go . . . and collections of things or half-made works. I’m always thinking, “One day, I’ll get to do something with that”.’
Kelly has chosen several QAGOMA Collection works that reflect her lifelong love of science to appear in the gallery space adjacent to Open Studio at QAG. ‘My dad was interested in plants and photosynthesis, so I’m very drawn to anything to do with growth and life and the sun. I was so happy to come across The sun lamps 1966 by legendary Australian artist John Brack.’ Fiona Hall’s Sundew 2006 is also on display, alongside an untitled print by surrealist Joan Míro depicting several dreamlike quasi-figures, with a form resembling a sun. ‘The thing that inspires me so much in sponges,’ notes Kelly, ‘is their biomorphic form, and their potential for projecting subject-like qualities onto their indeterminate features’.
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Her cultural heritage on her mother’s side has also influenced her choice of works, including Peruvian earthenware and a textile wall-hanging from her own collection. ‘My mother is from Peru and my grandmother is from [the city of] Ayacucho — she’s Inca and speaks Quechua, and I was brought up with lots of [Andean] textiles hanging around our living room.’ Kelly reflects both on the cultural knowledge embedded in the textiles and their influence on her development as an artist.
‘These textiles are like a codified form of language. They’ve got all these logical inversions and repetitions, and . . . semiotically, [they are] quite a rich terrain, because they are images embodying knowledge — like pictographs, I suppose, but more material in a way, with the warp and woof of the fabric. I love the way that thread is always this transmitter of meaning.’ The inclusion of two works by printmaker and textile artist Anni Albers in the display was prompted by her recent reading about the influence of Andean textile design on Western Modernism, particularly on artists from the Bauhaus movement.
Madeleine Kelly’s own artistic practice is a rich and ever-evolving tapestry that weaves together many threads — her personal heritage, her vast knowledge of art history, a keen curiosity about material culture, and an abiding love of the natural world.
Bronwyn Mitchell is Editor at the Queensland Museum and former Assistant Editor, QAGOMA. She spoke to Madeleine Kelly in June 2020.
‘Open Studio: Madeleine Kelly’ is in Queensland Art Gallery’s Pelican Lounge from 10 October 2020 to 31 January 2021. Visit Open Studio for insights into the creative practice of contemporary Australian artists, each artist has been invited to share their studio practice and provide insights into how they work. Upcoming: Abdul Abdullah: 13 February – 13 June 2021
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The 2020 Open Studio Program is supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.
Featured image: Madeleine Kelly / Photograph: Anna Kucera