"Adrian Kellard: The Learned Art of Compassion" at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (2012)


In palpably physical carved and painted wood assemblages that include both wall-hanging tableaux and free-standing sculptures, artist Adrian Kellard (1959-1991) synthesized an astonishingly disparate array of histories, personal realities and modes of art-making with masterful and fearless dexterity. Working-class, Irish-Italian, gay, and devoutly Catholic, Kellard, whose brief career is reviewed in this intimate and affecting retrospective, presents himself not only as an absolute whole but a powerful inevitability, for whom the deficiencies of identity politics and institutional religion caused little compromise in his exuberant and radically faith-driven craft.

Poised to mark the 20th anniversary of Kellard’s death at age 32 to AIDS-related causes, this exhibit also presented an occasion to revisit a perhaps lost strain of inquiry begun in the heady froth of the Reagan-era art world. Echoing the title of MOCRA founder and curator Fr. Terrence Dempsey’s dissertation, that query examined the “re-emergence of spiritual and religious concerns in American art of the 1980s." It was during Dempsey’s dissertation research -- a project which later became MOCRA itself -- that he first discovered Kellard’s work, which was included in a capacious 1985 group exhibit at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, Precious: An American Cottage Industry of the Eighties, curated by Thomas W. Sokolowski, former Director of the Andy Warhol Museum and then-director of the Grey Art Gallery. Sokolowski, who himself was exploring new approaches to religion in art, put Dempsey in contact with Kellard as well as Kellard’s mentor, pioneering installation and collage artist Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt -- also a working-class, gay, devout Catholic included in Precious. Arguing for a new sense of overt religiousity in an adamantly secular age, Kellard and Lanigan-Schmidt, along with other artists working in this milieu, pursued an antidote to what was perceived as spiritually bereft, market-driven art as well as 20th Century Modernism’s more oblique and perhaps rarified evocations of the nebulously “sublime”. 

More than two decades later, Kellard, here, not only re-surfaces as a key piece of this significant alternative history -- whose momentum, directly and indirectly, was radically hampered by the AIDS pandemic -- but appears freshly as a remarkable artist in his own right. In Prayer of the Faithful in Ordinary Time (1988), a red-and-white checker-pattern curtain parts to reveal Jesus, haloed in bright yellow and orange beams, praying under the star-riddled light of the full moon. Characteristically integrating the everyday with the otherwise lofty, the moon being gazed upon is in fact a store-bought plastic clock, its hands marking the agitated passing of earthly time. Lovers (1986) engages a similarly hybrid approach; Jesus again appears, now cradling a portrait of the recumbent artist, while a looming Christ-figure, crucified, dangles two construction-grade flood lights from his palms. The central scene is brightly lit, while a populous, night-time city proliferates around them: a finely etched series of high-rises, tenements and neighborhood churches, rendered in the manner of a woodblock printer (as all of Kellard’s imagery is), framing the couple and scaffolding the crucified form. Each row of windows is an intricate pattern piled on top of other patterns, and dimly primary-hued like newspaper-printed comics. Time is always of concern, as a reminder of something fundamentally common and as a critical exigency to heed. In St. Francis screen (1985), the saint is carved in a pose quoted from Giotto’s painting, St. Francis Preaching to the Birds (1297-1299), in the context of a hinged-room divider, the third panel of which is a functioning calendar. Not only were Kellard’s days marked by this piece, his apartment was bisected by it: his art, so closely linked with his faith, was hand-etched in the stuff of daily life and formed a space for him to fit absolutely within.

Kellard’s own brief life went as follows: raised amid a family of nine in a two-bedroom apartment in New Rochelle, Kellard was among the first class to enroll in SUNY Purchase’s fine art program. Though he left the program after only two years, he studied with printmaker and illustrator Antonio Frasconi, who trained him in the art of woodblock printing, a technique which would be incorporated in all of his subsequent work. Similarly, Lanigan-Schmidt, his SUNY Empire State program-appointed mentor, shaped his use of found materials and approach to spiritual and autobiographical content. In his eight-year and compactly meteoric career, Kellard’s work appeared in six solo and more than twenty-five group exhibitions, but has since rarely been shown. So, what is the importance of it now? Irascible, irrepressible and boldly honest, Kellard’s work not only communicates a plain sense of humanity but a brave and uncluttered sense of self. It may be that our current moment is marked by as much conflict with identity and meaning -- spiritual and otherwise -- as its not-so-distant predecessor, making this story as pertinent as ever.

Adrian Kellard: The Learned Art of Compassion was on view at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, St. Louis, September 24 - December 11, 2011. This review was published by Art Papers, January 2012.