Notes on the Artwork of Stephen Kelly (AKA: Stiofan O’Ceallaigh) by Robert Summers, Ph.D.
Stephen Kelly’s current art explores HIV transmission and/as transformation. This can be traced back to his earlier work from the late nineties that was already reckoning with dis-ease, flux, autobiography (often veiled) and identities—or, better, identifications. For example, in his early work titled Boxes and Circles (Fig. 1) , the boxes denote being “boxed in,” and the circles represent cells that can be infected by HIV. The artwork was not only based on aesthetic choices, but also personal and political ones, which show that aesthetics, politics, and the personal are always interlaced, as Jacques Rancière has argued. I argue that Boxes and Circles shows how people can be boxed in—tagged or labeled—by their sexual orientation, serostatus—as well as skin color, etcetera. But this artwork also shows the potential for flux to always take place, which would un-do any type of boxing—which we can also call a fixing, solidifying.
Fig. 1: Boxes and Circles / 1999
One on level, the visual aspect of Boxes and Circles, specifically the colors, foregrounding reds and browns that connote blood and shit, which has been explored by several queer artists, which shows a queer aesthetic inheritance—for example, Robert Rauschenberg’s Bed (1955), which has been argued to be showing human fluids and excrement. Furthermore, Kelly hides messages in his works. These messages function on conscious and preconscious level: on one hand he unintentionally does this, and on the other he intentionally codes them to trigger the space and time in which the artwork/s were created and what they meant to him at that particular time. Also, the secret is, according to Kelly, a way to keep a thread of connection to its meaning.
But why does Kelly deploy an abstraction? Kelly states, “Abstraction is part of the coding of my work, which then keeps a part private to me, even when it enters the public sphere, which will open the work to multiple readings and claims to knowing exactly what the work means.” I would argue that Kelly oscillates between a deeply personal art practice, which contains specific secrets—some even secret to him, I would argue—but also a public art practice that is open to a multiplicity of readings. Indeed, the secret remains secret in the artwork, and at the same time the work remains open to multiple meanings. For example, Rain Progress (Fig. 2-6), a specific body of abstract work, is an example of the above mention practices and intentions of Kelly—who desires to play “hide and seek” with his art, as well as a desire to have the work be in a state of flux.
Fig. 2: Cloud Mine (9 of them) / 2014-2016
Fig. 3: Sison Gaid / 2016
Fig. 4: Charity Sex / 2016
Fig. 5: His Shoulder is the Warmest / 2014-2016
Kelly’s Rain Progress is a kind of “coming out” that highlights the paradox of ever being completely out—not due to a fear of exposing one’s “true nature” once and for all—but rather to show that one must continually out oneself to others; one is always in the process of coming out because coming out never only happens once and for all; it is a practice that must be repeated.
Kelly’s artworks, as mentioned above, contain secrets—which may also be a secret to Kelly, especially on the psychoanalytic level—that are always present but made illegible, intentionally or not—and especially to those who do not know his biography. This is important in the sense that his artworks, which work on private and public levels, are displays of multiple identities and meanings (even with the secret), and thus resist any easy consumption of his work, which is a refusal and resistance to participate in our current economic global new world (dis-)order that promotes prepackaged objects and ideas for easy consumption.
Fig. 6: Testing the Rain / 2016
In Testing the Rain (Fig. 6), Kelly explores and exposes his body (parts). The photographic image reveals a curved section of the artist’s chest, while a white vest hides the rest. This is a different kind of Kelly’s “hide and seek” game, of being in and out. According to Kelly, “it is another form of coming out, another form of self-exposure to the viewers.” The photographic work is tender. The skin looks soft. The exposure of skin is seductive in that there is also a hiding of skin. He takes this further in other photographic works, respectively titled Look at Yourself in Colour (Fig. 7) and Queer (Fig. 8).
Fig. 7: Look at Yourself in Colour / 2016
Fig. 8: Queer / 2016
These two photographic images both reveal and conceal his crotch, which, ironically, makes one more interested – Kelly’s “hide and seek” is at work again. What makes these interesting, as what can be called “queer self-portraiture,” is that the face is refused—either looking away or not present—whereas in traditional self-portraiture the face is fully exposed—usually for the identification of the sitter. But, Kelly creates a queer kind of portraiture in that he resists and refuses clear identification—given it is always in flux. Also, in his photography the other body parts “speak” of other realities and experiences. And, of course, the “crotch shot” has a long history in gay photography, but Kelly refuses the total exposure of his genitals, which recalls the play of the secret, or, here, we can say the reservation of total knowingness: the length, size, etcetera of, it might as well be said, his dick. This said, these photos play into the same aesthetic game as his aforementioned paintings in that there is something hidden—something is being withheld. Now, with the discussion of his body (parts) and concealed face brings me to his art video Cum Slut (2016).
The video begins by showing an anonymous man’s or woman’s white flesh in close detail—the entire screen is filled with flesh. There is a song softly playing in the background, which is soothing. As the video progresses the skin comes into clear focus and then into a blur. Slowly (a) body (part) emerges, but quickly is lost and the screen is again filled with flesh. Movement is constant—the movement of light across the skin, the clarity and blurriness of the skin, and the emergence and disappearance of (a) body (part). Kelly makes an abstract video of the human body. It is seductive. It draws me in. I don’t know what is happening, but the movement—this flux—has me feeling that something is taking place. Then, as the video progresses, we see what is happening, what has been happening throughout this abstract video: anal sex. The camera focuses on the dick sliding into and out of the ass. This is a highly interesting—and to say the least—charged video that walks the fine line of art and porn—as well as abstraction and realism, art video and documentary. It is in the middle of these, and in this way it is queer: it refuses all binaries. Indeed, this piece contained a secret and then uncovers it, which still does not settle the meaning. This piece is an amazing video that takes us to what has been the subtext of this written work on Kelly’s art, as well as, I would argue Kelly’s art practice, and that is the aesthetics of relationality. That relationality—being with others, or simply one other—is an aesthetic practice. This relationality also happens in the meaning production of all of Kelly’s works. To be sure, Kelly’s art is one that must be engaged with and worked over—and an investment must take place. But, in doing this work with these said artworks is deeply rewarding.