Killeen’s Early Realism

by Laurence Simmons first published in Auction N˚4 catalogue, 30th Nov 2016

There are painters who aim for a direct, no-nonsense message. They marshal colours, shapes, figures, signs and symbols—even words—to convey the strongest possible emotions and experiences. Colin McCahon was a New Zealand painter of this kind. In the work of these artists, a limping brushstroke, a dotted line, a gesture makes an immediate, unequivocal appeal. It takes us right to the point. But, for many artists, getting to the point right away is anything but the point. Richard Killeen recoils from such graphic directness. With Killeen what you see in a painting, or at least what you initially see, are appearances that mask as much as they reveal. As you start looking, the game of working it all out has only just begun. The shapes and vagaries of Killeen’s early realist paintings and drawings of the late 1960s, of men and women in domestic and suburban settings, are nothing less than invitations to uncertainty.

It is this uncertainty that also tells us that “realist” is the wrong label to apply here. In these works, there exists a desire to communicate; and yet, a sense of estrangement emanates from the figures, who seem less depicted than imported, like animate stage props, seemingly entranced but with an insouciance that can unsettle the viewer. These are fictional beings, cobbled together in collaborations (or are they conspiracies?). This drawing is emblematic of this existential gawkiness: at times the monumental faces off against the intimate, a drawn line against a painted smear, and there are derangements of scale and frame. How does the large face emerging into the frame from the right relate to the smaller mid-ground figure? Their faces are turned towards each other. Yet there is no sense of priority; the face to the side is larger and closer but it does not take precedence. What is the connection between the spiky phoenix palms and the airliner in the upper right background? Why does the plane appear as if it were about to fall out of the sky? Since the composition is divided by what appear to be gathered curtains, are we looking through two large plate-glass windows at an exterior garden?

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.

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