Kevin Kelly

Michel Tétreault Art Contemporain

Since 1988, Kevin Kelly’s dioramas have incorporated large-scale paintings, videotapes, and photographs of virginal arctic landscapes, open pit-mines, and sequentially ordered, rectilinear Dutch forests. Constructed in a 180-degree, semicircular fashion, like the wilderness scenes one might see in a museum of natural history, at first sight these installations are strikingly beautiful. They internalize the kernel of the Romantic ethos that considers the act of representation a sublime ideal that somehow surpasses nature. The harsh resource elements, such as water, mine tailings, oil, rocks, and dirt set into constructed foregrounds, provide a stark physical contrast to the stagey backdrops that re-create images of nature in various stages of environmental deterioration. These reconstructed landscapes tap into the desires that motivate the acquisitive objectivity implicit in the act of representation, and give them form in a scale equal to reality. The effect is palpably disconcerting.

In Reconstructed Landscape #6, 1991, Kelly has created a seascape, the waters of which churn with an eerie blood-red coloration. Measuring 30 by 10 inches, with its horizon line placed well above our heads, this diluvian nightmare feels like a cross between Edvard Munch’s The Scream, 1893, and Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, 1818–19, devoid of people and without the raft. The unreal sensation of being swallowed up by the forces of nature is reinforced by the loosely stretched linen canvas and roughly painted details. An incongruous life-size plastic bear (the type used by taxidermists to set furs), stands on a tiny rock in the foreground, looking askance at the scene.

Kelly’s latest series of five small-scale dioramas, collectively titled “Skin Disease Landscapes,” 1990–91, signifies a shift in focus from a macrocosmic to a microcosmic scale. The surface of the earth becomes a metaphor for the human body; its weathered skin, afflicted by various unknown illnesses, passively awaits its own destruction. Inherently fragile and lifeless, these scarred landscapes function as emblems of an organism depleted in the service of civilization’s progress. The reconstructed environments and minidioramas envision a future world where we no longer know what nature really is—where the borders between civilization and nature are permeable and constantly shifting.

John K. Grande