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Diarmuid Kelley, 'Kangaroo,' 2016 (detail) | Courtesy of the artist and Offer Waterman Gallery
Diarmuid Kelley, 'Kangaroo,' 2016 (detail) | Courtesy of the artist and Offer Waterman Gallery
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A New Survey of Diarmuid Kelley's Paintings Opens in London

Picture of Bob Chaundy
Updated: 17 May 2017
British artist Diarmuid Kelley came to prominence at the age of 23 when he became the youngest ever recipient of the prestigious NatWest Art Prize. Now in his mid-40s, his latest exhibition at London’s Offer Waterman gallery showcases 12 new works.

Diarmuid Kelley’s latest solo show, Akzidenz-Grotesk, is comprised of oil paintings of the figure, interiors, and still life. There’s an Old-Masterly quality to Kelley’s work that draws on a 19th century form of realism. A key signature of his oeuvre is an implied narrative accentuated by a certain mood created through iconography, and a subtle balance of composition and lighting.

Ahead of Akzidenz-Grotesk, which opens to the public on April 21, Kelley spoke with us about his upcoming show in London.

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Culture Trip: Your paintings have a certain old-fashioned quality about them. Who are your main inspirations?

Diarmuid Kelley: Degas and Manet and that entire period – even people who are more commercial, or genre painters like Delaroche. I think Vienna and Paris in the late 19th century/early 20th century are so interesting for painters now, and I think they will continue to be since it’s almost like a point of crisis in all sorts of ways.

CT: Point of crisis?

DK: I think crisis in the way portrait painters were being usurped by photography, and also it’s the time of Freud: universal suffrage, nascent communism and all those things, and it’s just an interesting period. I’ve always liked the paintings to have that feel of being difficult to place in time. It’s also nice to have that tension between a painting as an abstract object and as a very tightly-observed realist image. For all that I’m interested in 19th-century painting, I’m extremely aware of having 100 years of modernism and contemporary art in the interim and that does colour everything I do.

CT: What made you choose dried leaves in Kangaroo?

DK: It’s that autumnal quality. It’s unashamedly, intensely romantic, and walking on the pavements I noticed that [dried leaves are] beautiful things and inherently sad. The range of colours they lend to a painting is a way of getting rich colours, and it’s the way they lead your eye in a very zig-zagging pattern that I thought – compositionally – is a very interesting thing to use. I hadn’t seen them before in other people’s paintings, so I thought it was a challenge – which it certainly was as it took ages. I ended up not being able to get in and out of the studio very easily for quite some time because I wasn’t able to nail them down to the floor. As well as being slightly translucent, they’re highly reflective; so all of the leaves, without you being aware of it, are affecting all of the other ones. So it was very tricky.

Diarmuid Kelley, 'Courbet, Saviour of The World', 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Diarmuid Kelley, 'Courbet, Saviour of The World', 2017. Courtesy of the artist and
Diarmuid Kelley, ‘Courbet, Saviour of The World’, 2017 | Courtesy of the artist and Offer Waterman Gallery

CT: One characteristic of your work is that the models are often prone or bending over. Why is that?

DK: It’s about vulnerability. The poses are derived from 17th-century Italian and Spanish painting with that religious imagery of martyred saints. John Everett Millais’ Ophelia is one that you can’t help but refer to when you’re doing this kind of painting. That in itself is influenced by that very Catholic imagery, so the source is ultimately the same. You’re looking at Caravaggio, where all this really starts. I’m placing it in a much more ambiguous setting. That’s where the sense of drama comes from.

Diarmuid Kelly, 'Horsemeat Disco,' 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Offer Waterman Gallery
Diarmuid Kelly, ‘Horsemeat Disco,’ 2017 | Courtesy of the artist and Offer Waterman Gallery

CT: You seem to have concentrated a fair bit on still life in Akzidenz-Grotesk.

DK: Yes, even the large paintings have still life elements, and what I’ve been trying to do is move the balance in favour of the still life over the figure so that you’ve got a much quieter narrative. So in the case of Horsemeat Disco (above), for example, it’s as much about the orange silk fabric in the centre of the painting with its bright colour along with the green bottles in the foreground, as it is about Karl (the model) himself. Trying to merge the two is an interesting project at the moment.

CT: It’s as if you’ve created a set for your paintings.

DK: Absolutely. Very often they’re what allows you to ground the figure in terms of space, so you know where the floor is and you know where the light is coming from. A lot of the visual information you need as a viewer is given over by the still life elements. That said, I’ve been painting camellias, geraniums and tulips with varying degrees of success. I’ve realised it’s much easier to paint a plant than a cut flower.

I got really interested in 17th-century Dutch flower paintings. I’ve begun to work out how to construct them because they’re so beautifully made that I couldn’t achieve anything like the delicacy of observation that they have using cut flowers, and I think you actually have to have the plant growing in front of you and the bulb as a separate entity. You paint it in stages but it allows you to spend days on painting flowers as opposed to hours, and that’s where I came unstuck for about three months last year painting tulips. I didn’t get any done because they wilt as you look at them rather like roses do, whereas when they’re growing in front of you they hold their shape for much much longer so you can paint them over a course of weeks. That’s a project for another time.

Diarmuid Kelley, 'Live at the Witch Trials,' 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Offer Waterman Gallery
Diarmuid Kelley, ‘Live at the Witch Trials,’ 2015 | Courtesy of the artist and Offer Waterman Gallery

CT: So is that where you see yourself developing as an artist, by beginning to master the depiction of such objects as flowers and fruit such as the grapes in Live at the Witch Trials (above)?

DK: I think I’ve always just liked perversely difficult things to do. There’s a whole array of subjects and objects in painting that seem impossible, yet you know there must be some way of painting them. It’s really interesting trying to work out how it was done and trying to replicate those effects. I’ve learnt to do fruit over time, and whenever I paint anything new, it’s always really difficult. I think it’s very rare that I would find some new material or some new object and be able to paint it immediately because there’s so much information in what we see and it’s always very difficult to translate that into two dimensions but that’s what makes it interesting. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be fun.

Akzidenz-Grotesk will open on April 21, and run through to May 16, 2017 at Offer Waterman Gallery, 17 George Street, London, W1S 1FJ.