Great hall of images

Richard Killeen's love of images propels him into new territory where intricate narratives unfold.

A painting is like a time capsule in that it carries the particular cultural moment in which it was done, through time. For example, one way you can experience the time in which Hieronymus Bosch lived is by viewing his paintings. This is why painting survives—it defies time,” says Auckland artist Richard Killeen. Sitting in his studio is also like being in a time capsule. The works decorating the walls are an amalgam of the images that have made him one of the country’s most collected artists over the past 35 years—the early interiors, the comb and grid paintings, the eponymous cut-outs, and more recently, the richly detailed digital images.

Killeen embraced technology early on. After purchasing his first Apple computer in 1985 he was soon collaging computer-generated and found images onto aluminium. He recalls, “I seem to have spent a lot of my career avoiding paintbrushes by using stamps, stencils, vinyl cutters and photocopying. Originally the cut-outs were a way of avoiding painting on canvas but with the current digital images I seem to have come full circle.”

It was also the Mac’s desktop icons that inspired him. “I was looking at the world in terms of images that were separate from each other, but work together in the same way you combine letters into words and words into sentences.” However he’s not an artist who uses words in his paintings. The few exceptions include works dedicated to writer Francis Pound and poet Alan Brunton.

He explains his interest in the image in a broader cultural context. “During the Reformation images were destroyed and replaced with the word. Today a lot of artists use words in their art as a means of abstraction. Images remind people of where they’ve come from, which is nature, and one aspect of the human condition is the desire to get away from nature and reach a transcendent place. If you look at McCahon’s work, you’ll find that in the early years he was painting images, but by the end of his life, he was painting white words on a black background. It was a total elimination of the image—his own personal reformation.

“I love the image because it’s an affirmation of nature, our environment and how we’re part of it. We ignore it at our peril.”

Those who saw Stories we tell ourselves: The Paintings of Richard Killeen, the survey show that toured New Zealand in 1999 and 2000, were left in no doubt about the artist’s love of the image. Curated by long-time Killeen aficionado Francis Pound, this show brought Killeen’s humour, intelligence and diverse creative oeuvre to a wider audience. The exhibition spanned over 30 years of his output, from the early oils—often of suburban and domestic subjects—to the comb and triangular grid patterns and the cut-outs.

Yes, the cut-outs, ranging from spare, controlled monochromatic small works in the late 1970s to the riotous visual cacophonies of the 1990s. These giant works, comprising over 300 pieces, beckon the viewer into the storybook mind of the artist. However since 2000 Killeen has returned to the rectangle, re-embracing the old but using the digital technology of the new millennium. Was there a conscious effort to move on from a genre that he’d exhausted?

“I don’t work like that. The cut-out was an area I mined for 20 years, but bear in mind, it took me 13 years to get there in the first place. I’ve always tended to work painting by painting so when you find a vein you think is gold you follow that.”

He explains his move into using cut-out shapes came from the 1970s minimalist aesthetic. “This was a particular time when using figurative images was a no-no. But I needed and wanted to depict the image. It was the subject matter that interested me. The cut-outs solved that problem. However in the digital works I’ve moved away from the modernist approach, where you look at a painting, back to where you’re looking into a painting.”

Looking into Killeen’s more recent digital works is quite different. But as they say, ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’. In these, the early dog, insect, plane and fish cut-out shapes reprise, forming rich visual tapestries and striving to burst out of their confines. But unlike the cut-outs, which could be organised and hung at the whim of the owner, the new shapes are contained in jars, ladybirds and ornate decorated frames. The comb and grid patterns recur, less kaleidoscopic but present, a reminder of the old stories but sleeker and more ordered.

So, in these futuristic time capsules, what sort of world is Killeen depicting for posterity? Using the architectural software programme Sketchup and Photoshop, he creates his virtual sculptures in 3-D, selects his textures and patterns and then ‘paints’ them onto the shapes. The separate elements are then exported to Photoshop and the resultant artwork is built up. Sure, the beings inhabiting his world look more like crash-test dummies or I Robot cast extras, but for Killeen, that is exactly the point.

“I’m not out to create the world as it is, but an alternative world that’s my own. There’s high-end software out there, via Lord of the Rings and King Kong, which allows you to create images like the real world but I can’t see the point of that. With the limitations of Sketchup I’m making simpler images, but I like having limitations and finding ways around them.”

Looking back over Killeen’s career to date, it’s hard to find too many limitations getting in the way of his images reaching the art market. During the 15 years from 1984, he published or collaborated in the production of 18 artist’s books, teaming up with poet Alan Brunton, artists John Reynolds and Gordon Walters, and writers Francis Pound and Margaret Orbell. And as a result of his recent ventures you can walk on, eat off and wear the art of Richard Killeen. For the past ten years, Dilana Rugs of Christchurch have included over a dozen Killeen designs in their range of floor coverings, and this year fashion designer Doris de Pont has chosen images from the Killeen repertoire to use in her 2007 Sampler collection.

Inspired by Great Hall of Jar, a work in Killeen’s exhibition at Ivan Anthony Gallery last year, de Pont approached the artist. This collaboration has resulted in a mixture of iconography—fighter planes, fish, insects and leaves—printed onto fabric, as well as the incorporation of the comb and grid patterns into garments that evoke memories of early Split Enz costumes. He has also produced a series of limited-edition prints, responding to the images used in the garments.

So where does Killeen see himself in the contemporary art scene? He was pleased to be part of Telecom Prospect 2007 at City Gallery Wellington and will continue with his annual dealer shows.

“The art scene is not the culture, it’s a sub-culture. In the end art has to relate to the culture rather than the art scene in order to survive. I believe one’s art hasn’t become part of the culture until someone goes along to a gallery or auction and is prepared to buy it. That’s the point it enters the culture. They like it, they value it, they want it and so they buy it and take it home.”

Given that works by Killeen regularly sell for over $50,000 at auction, there’s the strong feeling that images from the mind of this teller of our tales have definitely entered the culture.

/ Dan Chappell

Richard Killeen will exhibit in Something Old, Something New, at Te Tuhi, Pakuranga, from 12 May; Brooke/Gifford Gallery, Christchurch from 26 June; and Ivan Anthony Gallery, Auckland, from 25 July

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