Artist Chris Kelly Comes Home to East Hampton

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Chris Kelly at work in his studio.

By Kelly Ann Smith

Chris Kelly at Colm Rowan Gallery is a one-man show of divine proportions.

“Chris is pushing the envelope onward in colorfield, hardedge. For me, that’s exciting,” said Rowan after hanging his first gallery show of the season, and Kelly’s first one-man show.

Both men moved to East Hampton just prior to the pandemic. Kelly grew up in town but hasn’t lived here since high school. He called Williamsburg, Brooklyn, home for many years.

Rowan had a gallery in his hometown of Dublin, Ireland, in 1987, and subsequently opened in New York and Philadelphia. He’s traveled to London, Budapest and Moscow to meet with artists and has shown their work at art fairs all over the world.

In the fall of 2019, he hung his shingle in an alleyway in East Hampton Village, now unofficially dubbed Gallery Row.

“You started the charge,” Kelly said to Rowan.

Now, there are five galleries on one little stretch between Main Street and Park Place.

“Chris sent images,” Rowan said of their meeting. “When I saw them I thought, ‘These are beautiful.’”

“Beauty” is normally assigned to representational works of art, and not often a term used to describe hard-edged minimalism.

“To me, that was a revelation,” the gallerist said.

“Interior 45” by Chris Kelly.

There are 31 paintings and sculptures by Kelly on view in the show at Colm Rowan Gallery. Like a ballet, they have symmetry and balance that work together to deliver an aesthetic unique to Kelly’s work. At first, what seems like a flat expanse of color is nuanced to a fine degree upon inspection.

“It’s all underpinned by Fibonacci,” explained Rowan, referring to the 13th century Italian mathematician. “The sequence is a starting point for him.”

The starting point for Kelly was Southampton Hospital, the same place his first child Ethan was born seven month ago.

“I always knew I would come back to raise a family,” said Kelly in his studio and home property on Old Stone Highway in Springs.

His father grew up in Queens and Brooklyn and joined the priesthood but became disillusioned and left the church, eventually settling his new family into his ancestral home on Buell Lane. His mother’s family is Sicilian, although she was a Francophile who was a high school French teacher and pastry chef at the Royal Fish.

“I’m confident in the kitchen,” he said.

But his mother’s influence went far beyond baking. She made it a point to take him to museums in Europe, planting seeds for her son’s future. An art career was not encouraged, however.

“She wanted me to be safe,” he said.

Kelly studied English literature at Cornell University in Ithaca, where he sang a cappella. There were thoughts of becoming a lawyer. He stayed in the college town, bartending and taking art classes with his mentor Zevi Bloom.

He met his wife, Lisa Schagerström, at East Hampton Point, in between stints abroad. Yes, he spotted her across the crowded room and smoothly sent over a glass of wine. It must have been a sign that it was Bastille Day.

Chris Kelly’s sculpture “SGR 3,” latex/epoxy on wood.

His mother’s death 10 years ago was another turning point and what catapulted his art career to the next level.

“After my mom died quickly from cancer, if there was anything positive to be learned, it was ‘Why beat around the bush anymore? Why waste time? There is no time to lose,’” he said.

In the end, his mother realized that art, not the law, would keep her son safe.

“Every day I’m in this studio I think how lucky I am,” he said. “That feeling, I hope, translates into art.”

Just then, his wife came back from a walk with the baby strapped to her chest. She headed into the house to put him down for a nap. Peanut, a rescue canine from ARF, tagged along.

“She’s an elderly lady and likes to hunt and cuddle,” he said of the dog.

Looking around his studio before the show was hung in the gallery, it is obvious that gratitude, joy and depth of emotion indeed come through in his work. His brush strokes may not be expressive, but if there is such a thing as “expressive minimalism,” this is it.

The underlying nature of the golden ratio, or the placement of those hard-edged paint strokes and pencil lines, not to mention the interplay of color, may be what gives the work its emotional gravity.

Like the old masters, he calibrates the golden ratio of 1.618 into each work, using a special tool, mimicking what lays in nature many times over, in pine cones, seashells and even the human face.

Chris Kelly in his studio.

“Fibonacci frequencies are all part of systems,” he said. “Divine proportions are found everywhere in nature.”

Repeating patterns that expand are virtually universal, with no end. To that end, the artist uses hard-edged shapes to create a circular motion.

“I love circular movement,” he said. “I also love the not-so-obvious.”

The application of color, shape and numbers keep the energy flowing through his maze-like rectangles and squares.

“I want the viewer’s eye to move around everywhere, not get stuck in one place on the canvas,” he said.

He titles all his paintings “Interior” plus a number, working on multiples at a time. Like everything, art is a building process.

He poo-pooed the idea that repeating oneself is a negative.

“Through doing something repetitive you can find new ways of doing it,” he said. “Repetition of shapes is how I’m repeating a theme but each painting is its own thing.”

After working in the style for about eight years, he has started making sculptures as an extension of the paintings. The durable, painted poplar or mahogany pieces are fit for interior application on a table or mantle, meant to be viewed from five sides.

“I will eventually do them out of steel and weld them for outdoor application,” he said. “I’ll install them on the property to see how they look.”

One thing that stands out in the studio of colors like hydrangeas and the bay, is a black punching bag.

“I’m an MMA fan,” he said.

His martial arts training awarded him a black belt in Hapkido, a Korean kickboxing hybrid.

“I’m a humanist through martial arts and meditation,” he said, as the light filters from the skylight through the leaves on the trees above. “It makes the light richer. The Japanese have a word for it, ‘komorebi,’ light coming through trees.”

The sides of Kelly’s paintings are composed so that there are no frames, yet once in the gallery, they feel like windows, letting a warm breeze into the soul, on a hot summer’s day.

As Rowan alluded to, their emotional value makes a bigger impact on second view.

“They’re light,” Rowan said. “They’re touching that part of our brain where we’re looking for light.”

Quite a few people saw the light over Memorial Day weekend, when Kelly’s show opened with a reception.

“We had an excellent turnout at the opening and found buyers for 20 percent of the show within three hours,” Rowan said.

Without doubt, many more will return.

“Chris Kelly Paintings and Sculptures” runs through June 20 at Colm Rowan Gallery, 55 Main Street, East Hampton. For more details, visit colmrowan.com.

 

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