Killeen, of course, is not alone in his tendency to recoil from immediate visual lucidity. There are many artists who present a critique of clarity as they work to complicate their paintings’ emotional possibilities. To look for layers of feeling or sensibility in painting or drawing (arts that purport to show all on their surface) is to find oneself in the grip of a paradox. Beginning with the most fundamental spatial ambiguity (are we inside or out?), Killeen compounds ambiguity on ambiguity—not nihilistically, but constructively, in order to make the totality of his painting subtle, sensuous, elusive. Many of the shapes in this drawing are drawn from the interchangeable vocabulary of Killeen’s late 1960s period: outsized armchairs, large faces in profile, deadpan people who exude an air of blankness and lethargy, lounges, phoenix palms, airplanes, gathered curtains, people in motion who aren’t going anywhere. His titles from this time are flat, almost banal, descriptions: Four Men and a Woman in the Street (1969), Woman with Green Sofa (1969), Lamp Lady (1968). His compositions have a narrative complexity that some might consider a muddle. Nevertheless, it is a muddle enlivened by the wit that Killeen communicates with such easy brilliance.
There is something visually cacophanous, yet very amusing, about the variegated elements that Killeen packs into his compositions of this period, particularly the women in brightly coloured leotards engaged in callisthenics. This is a chaos that only a master could control, and Killeen does so by controlling it lightly, or even by seeming to give control away, delegating it to us. There is, too, a Saturnian quality—a negative energy—that conducts attention away from the work itself to something elsewhere in the world: the senselessness of suburbia, perhaps? Everyone—painter, subject and spectator—seems in suspended animation, trapped, rather than liberated, by the scene depicted. Killeen is one of our great artists, whose greatness is of a piece with the provincial clumsiness of surburban New Zealand culture in the late twentieth century. This is a working drawing that more than pays its freight in the small change of intrigue and charm.