Give Peace a Chance
Is the Peace Movement still relevant for our contemporary, post-truth, social media driven society? William Kelly is an artist who has devoted his life to giving peace a chance and working in socially engaged art.
Born in Buffalo, New York, Bill Kelly remembers that he once called a park bench his home and found employment as a steel worker, taxi driver and welder. He was also awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and for a while served as the Dean of the Victorian College of the Arts. He now works from a studio in rural Victoria and makes art that has received widespread recognition.
Kelly is soft-spoken and quick to describe himself as the luckiest artist alive, in a quiet, but consistent manner has devoted his life and art to the peace movement and is widely considered as the moral conscience of Australian art. He is a gifted, and at times brilliant, natural draughtsman, who frequently weaves his compositions together like a tapestry allowing the accumulated power of the images to develop a singular strong and dominant voice.
Between August 2014 and December 2016 Bill Kelly has been a recipient of a Creative Fellowship at the State Library of Victoria with the initial idea of developing an artists book dealing with socially activist art in Australia, but the idea morphed in form, scale and theme. The intimacy of the artists book was swapped for the most public of art forms, the banner, and a private whisper became a public declaration.
Banners have always been a public art and in many instances have been associated with peoples’ movements, whether this be May Day demonstrations or the Banners of Pride created by trade unions over the ages.
The State Library of Victoria has its iconic domed reading room that I consider as one of the most beautiful spaces in the world and one in which I have spent many years of my life. Bill Kelly’s idea was to create a grand Peace Banner, in the form of a twelve-metre-long print, that would be suspended from the dome in the public reading room.
Technically this is one of the largest fine art prints made in Australia, possibly only rivalled by the thirty-five-metre long screenprint made at Megalo in Canberra to commemorate its thirty-five year history .
Bill Kelly’s work, titled Peace or War: The Big Picture, has as its basic compositional unit a street scene where elements from Giorgio de Chirico, Balthus and Georges Seurat – three of the artists who have changed the way we see the world – contributing iconic elements to the design. This composition is then repeated several times on the banner stressing how society by employing different technologies constantly sets out to destroy the same social fabric.
The street remains the same as do the human victims, what changes are the technologies employed to kill people, from primitive means to American stealth bombers. At the bottom of the banner is a dense block of handwritten names of the ‘foundation’ consisting of the names of those who thought that social norms should be challenged and needed to be changed. Amongst the more than a hundred names are included Marcel Duchamp, Noel Counihan, Lin Onus and Salman Rushdie .
The fundamental question posed in this banner is why should society regard war as a norm and peace as an interlude and not consider peace a basic human right. Bill Kelly poses the big question on a grand scale and he is one of the few artists who has the skills, imagination and the ability to pull this off to create something which possesses a solemn beauty, a monumental presence and punches a strong message. While a philosophy prevails among some artists that artists should not in their work make overt political statements and that this belongs more to the realm of politicians and social commentators, Kelly looks to the tradition of Goya, Picasso and Rivera and sees the role of the artist to engage with society and be both the visual chronicler of their time as well as the conscience of their society.
In a world that sometimes appears to be hurtling along a path of self-destruction and within a milieu of art making that has lost itself in pattern-making and self-centred esoteric theory, Bill Kelly’s art brings together two democratic art mediums, that of printmaking and the banner, to produce a powerful work that shouts its message to give peace a chance. This is a celebration of the values of the State Library of Victoria to be free, democratic and secular and a strong affirmation that art has the power to alter society and to join the ranks of those who are fighting the good fight. It is critical for us to remember that despite all obstacles, peace must win as the alternative is too frightening to even contemplate.
William Kelly’s banner in the Dome Reading Room of the State Library of Victoria, Peace and War: The Big Picture, will remain on display until Sunday December 11, 2016
GRISHIN'S ART BLOG
Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA is the author of more than 25 books on art, including Australian Art: A History, and has served as the art critic for The Canberra Times for forty years. He is an Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University, Canberra; Guest Curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; and Honorary Principal Fellow, Faculty of Arts, at the University of Melbourne.
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