Fascination for geometry runs deep for artist Justin Barrie Kelly. Fluent in the genres of collage, assemblage, photography and painting, he moves fluidly between each medium and never fails to astonish. Showing a proclivity for depicting the cone, cube and orb, he describes these elements as forming the fundamental building blocks of three-dimensional design. He attributes his background as a former furniture designer to his development as an artist. Sighting a visceral connection, Justin once admitted to weeping at the sight of Malaevich’s constructivist “White on White”. Collage Corner catches up with this jack-of-all-trades, as he opens up about his life as an art instructor, graduate student and his work as an artist.
VV.: Justin, what a delight to finally meet you! I’ve been enamored of your IG feeds for quite some time. I realize that you are versed in a number of different disciplines such as painting, photography, collage and assemblage. Does one field generate more interest than another?
JBK.: I have been thinking recently about why I work in different disciplines. I put it down to my undergraduate course which was Three-Dimensional Design. This was essentially a course in anything to do with making, so we did photography, jewellery, ceramics, textiles, drawing, engineering, electronics, woodwork, work in plastic, welding, casting…you name it. I even did lectures in sewage (presumably on the grounds that if you make things you ought to know where the waste goes). I thought at the time that doing so many different things meant one would never get as highly skilled in any one thing as one would on a more focussed course (which is true to a large extent) but it gave me a way of thinking about things which is to see all tools and all processes as being available to call on when I need to.
“Assemblage is a kind of mathematical puzzle and it takes cognitive effort to work out all the formal relationships.”
VV.: Would you feel pigeonholed if we spoke exclusively about assemblage?
JBK.: Of all the things that I do, I think that the most important is collage/assemblage because it has at its root a philosophy that very much chimes with my experience and manner of working which is about taking things and manipulating them in a very free and creative fashion. In a way, that is perhaps more free than any of the other disciplines I have done. I would say the mentality that one develops working in collage pervades everything else and I can’t think of anything more important as a subject to learn about if one is interested in the visual arts. So I am happy to talk about just collage/assemblage but I could also make the case for it being important to other fields. A couple of examples: I think I have realised that many of the photos I have taken are essentially collages just done with a camera: being concerned with separate elements that come together and overlap and set off oscillations between each other.
I have been doing some wood engraving again recently. Wood engraving is done on these really expensive boxwood blocks. Tiny little ones cost £40 or £50 so wood engravers are very precious about them but I (with my collaging hat on) thought I could cut them up and reassemble them and hack into them and turn them upside down and make them not level: going through the same processes as when doing collage to come at wood engraving in a way I don’t think has been done before, and I put that down to my collage/assemblage work. It really frees you up.
So I am not worried about being pigeonholed in talking about the wellspring of assemblage from which everything else flows.
I wish there were a better way to phrase collage/assemblage because to me they are similar if not the same; It is just that one extends more in the third dimension but apart from that, they are identical.
“...my experience and manner of working...is about taking things and manipulating them in a very free and creative fashion.”
VV.: Let’s step back for a moment; please tell me about yourself.
JBK.: I’m a Welsh, middle-aged-artist and educator. When I am not producing art and design, I teach it to others. I have taught in different schools, art colleges and a university over the years. Some of the roles I have held: I was head of vocational Art and Design at Kingston College, Team leader for Arts at East Berkshire College and currently Head of Design and Technology at a school outside London. I did undergraduate studies in Three-Dimensional Design at Newport School of Art and I did a Masters in Furniture Design and Making at the Royal College of Art. The RCA was where I was really introduced to Art because whilst I was studying there there were all sorts of exhibitions by famous artists put on by the college that us students got to go to and watch being put up and hung.
I have a wonderful wife and kids who support me in my crazy art antics and who put up with me getting paint over my clothes and suchlike.
VV.: How did you start making art?
JBK.: Art has always been in the family. There were always paint brushes around the house when I was growing up. Family history says that my great grandfather painted and did gold leaf on royal carriages. My grandfather was a sign writer and introduced me to sign writing and calligraphy when I was very little and my mother was always painting and teaching me techniques as I was growing up. The first I learnt that one could get a positive glow from how one’s art makes others feel was in primary school. Schools in Wales used to do their own mini Eisteddfods (the Eisteddfod is a famous Welsh cultural festival). I won the art prize in our school Eisteddfod in my last year of primary school for a painting of Jesus on the cross and that made me feel great. I used to paint advertising signs for local shops, a music teacher at school paid me to make stencils so he could make gig posters and the headmaster at school would pull me out of lessons to get me to do calligraphy whenever the school had some important event that needed fancy stationery. I almost got the dapper once (a form of corporal punishment where a teacher hit you with a gym shoe) when I was about nine because I had discovered that it was possible to melt crayons on the hot radiator pipe and have the wax dribble down to collect in little multicolour stalagmites which became brilliant art tools because as you drew with them the lines changed colour. I don’t suppose really I was ever going to be involved in anything other than Art and Design.
“ I had discovered that it was possible to melt crayons on the hot radiator pipe and have the wax dribble down to collect in little multicolour stalagmites which became brilliant art tools..”
VV.: I see that you had a bit of a rebellious side to you even then! Your two-dimensional and three-dimensional works inform each other. Correct me if I’m wrong but your IG feeds seem to imbue a fascination for geometry – conical shapes, orbs, and grids. I’m reminded of Malevich. Would you say that your work is architectural?
JBK.: You could say my work is architectural but I think it is more the geometry within architectural forms rather than architecture per se that I am responding to. The fascination with geometry comes from studying furniture. Essentially, furniture and a lot of three-dimensional design consists of the same basic geometrical solids distorted and recombined; I see the cube, the cone and the sphere as being the fundamental building blocks of three-dimensional forms. When you study furniture design you spend a lot of time drawing rectangles, arcs, spheres etc. I have a collection of interesting geometrical solids and have even gone to the trouble, I am ashamed to admit, of making many of them myself. I will admit to the only time being moved to tears by a painting was when confronted in a gallery by Malevich’s “White Square” so maybe the fascination runs deep. I do find an odd spiritual sensation when contemplating geometrical shapes and solids. Having said all this; What I am finding really useful at the moment is how collage is liberating me and freeing me from the strictness that geometry can confer. The process of dealing with asymmetrical, organic forms such as one gets in collage is really freeing me up at the moment…collage is helping me to unlearn the regimented way of thinking that one develops studying design.
“Collage is liberating me and freeing me from the strictness that geometry can confer.”
VV.: May you please describe your process when it comes to assemblage?
JBK.: Basically, I collect stuff. I don’t have a massive amount of space to store it in so I think that limits the size of what I do to some extent. I have it around me; in the study, in the workshop, hung on the walls, laid out on benches and I fiddle about with it as the muse takes. I don’t think I could be given a pile of stuff and told: “you have three hours, make something out of this”. Well at least, if I were told that it wouldn’t be that good. I need time to think about it. Assemblage is a kind of mathematical puzzle and it takes cognitive effort to work out all the formal relationships. I know this sounds a bit highfalutin but it is true. A good example of this is my current problem: I have collected a big pile of wonderful bits of wooden children’s construction toys: blocks, rods, wheels, columns etc. I thought it would be easy to make into art, really right up my street but I have found that as soon as you position three elements there are multiple decisions to be made about the best position of those three relative to each other. You would think that as you add more elements and it gets more complex that it would be self controlling in that you solve the position of the first three so that then the next added element becomes a new problem relative to just the few before it, but as you add more, every element has to relate to every other one (not to mention that some get subsumed, hidden by the application of others) such that is soon becomes vastly complicated. It is like a maze, if you go along fixing these early elements together but then ten moves ahead, you can see that you should have taken a different path, you can’t do anything about it because often these elements are fragile and won’t stand being repositioned. Because of all of this it can take forever trying to work everything out in your head or on paper so that you can proceed. The actual making process then is comparatively quick compared to working it out.
“I collect stuff. I don’t have a massive amount of [storage] space....I have it around me; in the study, in the workshop, hung on the walls, laid out on benches…”
I do lots of different things so they often feed into each other. A discarded bit of a print might join a bit of wood that didn’t work in a sculpture. Bits of paper that I mix up glue on or mix paint on I save and they might make it into another work. Sometimes I will have to specifically custom make a piece to fit. On a circular assemblage I did, I had to make the wooden coat hanger because no coat hanger I could find had exactly the right size or curvature to fit the space I needed. I try to include relevant bits of ephemera from my life to give the work meaning but often the ‘design’ requirements take over and I will use whatever I can find that is right to balance the formal requirements no matter that it has no emotional import.
I am forever looking out for things and I have embarrassed the family so many times by stopping to collect things off the street if they look useful. They have gotten quite good at knowing what might be interesting to me and they bring me things sometimes. The Coronavirus has been a problem because the vast flea markets and open air car boot sales that are my usual hunting grounds I haven’t been able to go to since last Summer.
I often am unsure about what goes where so will use photography to collect images of different arrangements. I then periodically flick through the different photographs and often one jumps out as being clearly the correct one. I will also use the computer to work into a photograph to try out different colours without the risk of ruining the real thing (something I have done lots of times before I worked out how to stop this).
“It is like a maze, if you go along fixing these early elements together but then ten moves ahead, you...see that you should have taken a different path..”
My ideal working environment would be a massive aircraft hanger with a thousand benches all with stuff laid out that I could walk along and modify and reposition at will. As I don’t have the space I have to keep stuff in boxes and this makes it harder because you inevitably forget what you have that might otherwise have been obviously useful.
“My ideal working environment would be a massive aircraft hanger with a thousand benches…”
VV.: Do you have a favorite artist/s?
JBK.: Obviously, I would say Schwitters whose work is sublime but by far, the most inspiring is Louise Rösler. She was a German collage artist. Her work is little known outside of Germany and she lived with vast amounts of it in her flat, such that, when she died, her daughter was able to keep a lot of it together and being an artist herself and from a family of artists, she started a gallery which houses the family collection. The gallery homepage is: http://museum-atelierhaus-roesler-kroehnke.de. The physical gallery is just outside Khulungsborn on the Baltic Sea and every year we visited Khulugsborn, I went to see exhibitions of her work and was blown away by it all. So much of it you can’t see on the internet but having seen so many exhibitions, I can tell the world that her work should be a household name.
After Löuise Rosler, it would be the work of the Bauhaus, particularly their collage and assemblage work. My wife is German, hence our frequent visits to Khulungsborn. We also visit Weimar every year so the Bauhaus is my emotional safe place having been there so many times. In one of the exhibitions, before they built the new Bauhaus museum, there was a tiny little exhibition in one of the many small museums in Weimar. In one of the glass cabinets was an open scrapbook of photographs taken by the lecturers of the work of the students at the Bauhaus in the thirties. The little exercises that the students did were wonderful, very moving but I was really frustrated that the book was about four inches thick or more but just statically laid open on one page. What else lies within that book has tormented my thoughts often over the years!
"Welsh Not” [ has] elements related to Wales, my homeland.”
VV.: I’m also fascinated with artists’ books so I understand your frustration. Tell me, are there certain standouts in your collection? And why?
JBK.: One of the pieces that I have done which may not be the actually the very best visually is one that has the most backstory.
It is the assemblage entitled: “Welsh Not”. Its elements [are] related to Wales, my homeland. The title has two meanings, referring to the ‘Welsh not’ that is screwed to it and also a sort of question referring to the status of Newport – my home town – wherein, in the past, many [have] argued that it was not really a part of Wales.
The “Welsh Not” was a piece of wood that some Welsh school children were made to wear or hold in the past if they were caught speaking Welsh as a way of discouraging the speaking of Welsh. Some sources describe them being used up until the 1940s. They are rare so the one that I have on my artwork I had to make myself. It is fixed to the right of the central organ pipe: the little bit of wood with WN on it.
The schools I attended as a child never taught Welsh so there is a sense of regret in the artwork.
Also, Monmouthshire where Newport was situated and where I was born was for hundreds of years in the ambiguous situation of it not being totally established in law whether it was in Wales or England. This was not settled until after 1974 after I was born.
The Eisteddfod in the centre is relevant because as a student I worked as a labourer helping to build staging for it the year it came to my home town. I still remember how myself and my friends were totally nonplussed by the Welsh language we saw and heard (being non-Welsh speakers) so the Eisteddfod is something that coming from Newport we were not able to partake in so there is more regret there.
I was hoping to get a little sense of the oddness in this piece that I get from looking at Russian Art featuring Cyrillic Russian. In a sense it is an example of what in literature is magical realism: an altered, fake reimagining. You could see it as twee but in this alternative world, the Russian Avant Garde started instead in Wales. I wondered what it would have looked like. Hopefully others are as nonplussed by it as I am not being able to understand the Russian on posters by Rodchenko.
The artefacts are symbolic of Wales; the musical tradition symbolised by the cello body, a pair of bellows to start the coal fires (that every home in the valleys had), part of a spinning wheel, a Welsh love spoon that I had to carve myself (because it was the most avant garde shaped love spoon that I came across), Welsh language records, text and part of an organ pipe that came from a church in Wales etc.
VV.: Where do you envision yourself ten years from now?
JBK.: I would like to be able to say that I was technically better than now (that I had continued to grow and experiment and develop) that maybe I had figured out a way to be able to share my work with more people. To be part of a recognised art body would be nice. To have more space. Hopefully by then, I will have built myself a larger studio. I would like to be making larger work, but then again the most wonderful pieces that have stood out to me over the years from the works of others have often been tiny. To be in a position to be able to sell more work. Humble goals I think.
VV.: Those are great ambitions, Justin that I don’t fail to see happening especially given the rate at which you’re going! Lastly, I like to ask all my interviewees this question: What advice would you give to an artist just starting out?
JBK.: Don’t agonise over things, just get it done. Much better to have a piece that exists even if you don’t think it is any good, rather than it not exist at all.
Remember that the work of all artists has value because it represents a little bit of the life that they had to use up to make it. So no matter where you think you are in your artistic journey, your work has value.
Whatever you do, someone somewhere will really love it.
“Never pass up an opportunity to learn a new technique”
Don’t throw anything away. You will change your own opinion of your work over time. I sometimes go back to earlier pieces that I thought were rubbish only to be impressed that if I tried to make them today I wouldn’t know where to start. Incidentally, all rejects, mistakes and failures can be the material for a collage or assemblage. You make your materials in this way.
You can learn many things and open up entirely new avenues by playing with processes and methods so don’t be afraid to try something even if you have literally no idea if it will be any good. Do it anyway.
Whatever anyone says to the contrary, it is easier to make things the more skills you have, so never pass up an opportunity to learn a new technique.
The art world values skill so practice something a lot to get confidence and fluency. It values commitment so consider having something on the go in the background that looks like it took forever but which you just did a little each day on over a long period of time.