Richard Killeen’s entomological imagination

Laurence Simmons considers the artist's transformative use of the insect.

Among the many books of flora and fauna in Richard Killeen’s library is a small volume written by a children’s author, Eleanor Doorly, titled The Insect Man (1936). It is the story of Jean-Henri Fabre, considered by many to be the father of modern entomology. Killeen’s interest in entomology is well known and the figure of the insect occupies a special place in his imagination. Seen as creatures of beauty or as ugly pests, insects are remarkable in their powers of transformation and tend to evoke either admiration or revulsion. While some insects fascinate and charm us, it seems we find the majority repulsive. Our representations of insects are many, as are the reactions of fascination or repulsion that they arouse. Insects come in both angelic and daemonic anthropomorphic forms: the fluttering, ecstatic butterfly, the lethal wasp, the devout yet cannibalistic praying mantis. But more than anything, insects fascinate in their ability to shift shape, to metamorphose from earthbound grub into winged creature of the air. The least notable caterpillar will metamorphose into a graceful butterfly and the alluring dragonfly started out as a water larva—as such, these creatures capture our imagination. They symbolise the ability to change more than any other animal alive and in this respect there exists a peculiar affinity between the figure of the insect and the artistic, both imbued with that magical power of transformation. It is this aspect of change and transformation that fascinates Killeen; his work both employs insects and transforms them.

For many painters, and Richard Killeen is no exception, the issue—struggle even—is to know how to shift gear and “make it new,” which poet Ezra Pound once insisted was the imperative of all art. Some artists, like Giorgio Morandi, prefer to stay where they are and tinker exquisitely in a minor vein. Others, like Colin McCahon, bounce from series to series, although we suspect that the series for him were different yet somehow all the same. How, for example, viewers asked, did Philip Guston get from his abstract gestural strokes and patches of floating colour to those clunky yet arresting images of old shoes, lightbulbs and discarded cigarette butts that characterise his later figurative work? How was Killeen to get from the grid-like abstract Pacific patterns that begin to appear in his work in 1973 to the first painted cut-out aluminium shapes that were exhibited in 1978 at the Peter McLeavey Gallery? Killeen’s answer was to mix them up: to “insert bugs into his grids”, as Francis Pound insists (riffing on the term ‘bug’ as both a defect and an infestation), letting the figurative invade and disturb the abstract. The infestation happened early on, and Ladybird of 1977 is painted like many of the Grids in oil on a raw aluminium sheet.

Richard Killeen, Pea Beau, 1976, acrylic on canvas, 152 x 102 cm

An artist’s paintings of transition are often the most intellectually and visually exciting, for they pulse with the energy of change and new ideas. Killeen’s Pea Beau (1976) is no exception. It is a grid but it is populated with insects; Pea Beau’s yellow, blue, black and white triangles in a grid are perfectly balanced but also undone, by a fly, red butterfly and bug placed in procession down its right side. In this work, the carefully depicted insects, line drawn in black on white, recall drawings found in an Auckland Museum handbook of zoology first published in 1947, A. W. B. Powell’s Native Animals of New Zealand, subsequently much treasured by schoolchildren like myself. According to the art historian Daniel Arasse, the motif of the insect in Renaissance painting has multiple meanings or significations: its presence in a painting may celebrate the art of mimesis and its ability to represent details with lifelike clarity; it might bring stillness into the image by depicting an insect renowned for its swift movements. If a fly, it is often a moral sign of temporality and death as well as a signifier of decay and disease. But the depicted insect is perhaps primarily a trap for our own flying gaze, a way for us to keep on looking at something, seeking meaning we cannot quite grasp. The title of Pea Beau is a measure of Killeen’s mordant humour and ironic wit: Pea Beu was a popular fly spray of the 1970s and 80s. “Hit ’em high / Hit ’em low / Hit ’em with Pea Beu!” ran the advertising jingle at the time. And from my memory, the painting’s yellow, white and blue came from the original Pea Beu can.

Richard Killeen, Black Crawlers, 1978, acrylic lacquer on aluminium, 30 pieces. Collection of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
Richard Killeen, 565 Insecand, 2015, UV inkjet on plywood, 38 x 38 cm

Of course, by the time his cut-outs arrived Killeen had ‘nailed’ his wayward insects. Black Crawlers of 1978 has 30 black insects delicately cut out of aluminium crawling up the white wall. Not by chance, the word ‘insect’, along with the Latin insectum and its Greek equivalent entomon, which is found in ‘entomology’, means ‘to cut into’ (from Latin in- plus secare, to cut). Thus, the name evokes the constrictions in the shape of an insect’s body as well as the often sharp, pointy, piercing bits of their anatomies. In his cut-outs of the late 1970s Richard Killeen regularly places his insects alongside geometrical forms, often triangles as in Red Insects, Blue Triangles (1980). It is as if he has somehow arrived from the triangular grids of his previous patterned paintings to create a geometrical and entomological dance of cut-out shapes. The insect is his creative bridge between the mathematics of shapes and the natural world. “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport,” rants the blind and deranged Gloucester in Shakespeare’s King Lear. The encounter we have all experienced between children and bugs results in no clear moral lesson and is a reminder of the uncertain place of insects in our ethical thinking. It would seem that they are just too tiny, instinctual and multiple; somehow, for us humans, too much at the edges of sentience of animal life. The moral ambiguity is there in Killeen, too, for he nails his bugs to the wall; but he also blows them up big, manipulates and transforms their forms, and makes us rethink their significance. Killeen’s insects are composites made up of features from various insect groups: wasp-like wings and antennae with dragonfly abdomens and legs. In recent digital work like 565 Insecand (2015) he combines them with human and mechanical attributes and forges a new name, ‘insecand’, made up of ‘insect’ and ‘hand’. Killeen’s insect paintings instruct us that we can no longer afford to think about ethics in separation from insects. Insects are reminders that we are ecologically entangled in our lived world in ways we often only dimly perceive and that we are impacting the environment and other species in damaging ways we frequently ignore.

One insect features particularly large in Killeen’s entomological collection: the ladybird beetle, an insect of many associations. Its name, ‘Our Lady’s bird’, is a reference to Mary, who was depicted wearing a red cloak, and the seven spots of the most common ladybird are said to symbolise her seven sorrows. Ladybirds are associated in many languages with nursery rhymes, lucky omens and portents of romance. Entomologists who study them, on the contrary, describe them as violent, sex-obsessed predators. In Beetle Collection (2002) the back of the rotund and patterned ladybird provides Killeen with a frame; it is as if its patterning becomes the signal and site for his patterning. As Margreta Chance has written: “The ladybird is a vehicle where Killeen can continue to explore the fragmentation of unity and the harmonisation of variety.”

Richard Killeen, Ladybird, 1977, oil on aluminium, 36.5 x 42 cm

Richard Killeen’s imagining of insects challenges the ways we think about insect worlds. He also challenges the misconception that we as humans have access to the world in its entirety, stressing instead the relational aspect that all living beings have with their surroundings. The double otherness of insects—animals are other than human and insects are other than animal—draws attention to the mobility of the mechanism by which we define the human and the fact that this is a strategic rather than natural divide. Insects are simultaneously distant and proximate to us – we use their external behaviours to identify the base animal instincts inside us—and in this way a line is drawn inside and outside the human being. The words are near homonyms, as if to indicate the connections between ‘insects’ and ‘instincts’—and insects appear to do everything by instinct. Bees and ants are capable of creating entire societies, on an instinctive basis that is genetic, inside of which each insect moves as if they were part of a superorganism. These societies fascinate us for their very complexity and architecture. To imagine insects is to sense that they threaten our fantasy of individuality, of remaining unique human beings, since their numerosity indicates our insignificance as individuals. As we have seen, Killeen’s art creates a space for the smallest and humblest of creatures, ubiquitous yet often unseen, inviting us to pay attention to that which is recognisable yet infinitely other. Insects serve as connectives between the most unlikely of characters, creating sympathies and synergies where least expected, marking moments of rare poetic beauty. The complex ways in which characters and animals are handled in Killeen’s art gives credence to the claim that all living creatures ought to be understood not as objects at our mercy but as subjects interacting with our lived world. Killeen’s poetic imagination allows us a glimpse into unknowable worlds that otherwise would remain beyond our ken, alerting us to the multitude of ways in which insects—definitionally insignificant creatures in their inscrutable singularity—are miracles of creation too. In this, Killeen’s art creates a bridge between human and animal worlds, insisting on their mutual interdependence, where damage done to the one inevitably signifies harm to the other.

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