KILLEEN, Richard; Don't forget the spider
In his influential book Art and Agency (1998), anthropologist Alfred Gell explores the ways in which complex and visually puzzling patterns have been used throughout the world to ward off evil.(1) Gell suggests that apotropaic patterns, such as those found in Celtic knot work, act as ‘demonic fly-paper’. That is, demons are lured to the surface, but become so fascinated with the pattern that they cannot pass through. Richard Killeen’s Don’t forget the spider 2011 embroils the viewer in a maze of interconnecting lines and forms that are made to appear as though they loop over and under, forming a weave that comprises the entire field of the work. Interestingly, the artist has described the cut-outs as being ‘like a story without a narrative. They’re also like a never-ending knot, a Celtic knot’.(2)
Killeen is a senior New Zealand artist whose practice has consistently explored the language of painting. His series of cut-out paintings, created between 1978 and 2001, are perhaps the most celebrated of his mature work, with two examples held in the Queensland Art Gallery’s Collection. His more recent works, including Don’t forget the spider, return to the ‘square mouth’ format of traditional paintings. Yet, this return is not a return to a fixed viewpoint; extending his understanding of the Celtic knot, Killeen’s digitally layered paintings explore further ways of abandoning the hierarchical composition and viewpoint instituted by a painting’s frame. He does this through the creation of interlocking lines and patterns that dissolve surfaces, trapping viewers within, rather than outside, the work’s labyrinthine forms.
Here, a spider and its dragonfly prey are entwined in a carnal relationship of life and death. The interlocking of their legs leads the eye beyond the surface and into a maze of rich patterning and interlocking shapes. The more we look at these entwined subjects, the more the fine, mesh-like patterning of the work’s white background comes forward, dissolving the surface until it feels as though we are looking up through a web of fine threads instead of down onto a patterned surface. This completely changes the relationship of the viewer to the subjects, placing them, rather threateningly, in the front of - rather than behind - our enquiring gaze. The title of the work extends the idea of a web or maze, and acts a warning to the viewer about their engagement with the work and its subject.
Don’t forget the spider is a work in which the tables appear to have been turned on who is being studied. Like the Celtic knot, it is also a work about life: the white patterned background acts as both web and cocoon, in which life is taken and transformed. Perhaps Killeen’s title, with its reminder not to forget, is also about this.
Ruth McDougall, Artlines 1-2012, p.43.
1 Alfred Gell, Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1998.
2 Richard Killeen, quoted in Artwork Overview: Black Crawlers, Auckland Art Gallery, http://www.aucklandartgallery.com/the-collection/browse-artwork/5358/black-crawlers, viewed on 25 September 2011.
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