Important Australian + International Fine Art
30 April 2014


born 1965

oil on linen

102.0 x 167.5 cm

signed and dated lower right: Klly 94
dated and inscribed verso: (13) 1/2 PAINTED COW ON / TRESTLES / 1994

$40,000 - 60,000
Sold for $66,000 (inc. BP) in Auction 35 - 30 April 2014, Melbourne

Niagara Galleries, Melbourne (label attached verso)
Private collection, Sydney

Catalogue text

John Kelly was born in Bristol, educated in Australia, and now resides in Ireland. As an artist his work is deeply affected by Australian art, culture, and colonial history, and in particular the work of 1940s Modernist painters such as Sidney Nolan and William Dobell.

Kelly's early works are populated by abstract representations of animals; zebras, horses, and above all, the black and white cow. His now renowned 'Dobell's Cow' series consumed the artist's attention for five years, from 1991 to 1996, during which he recreated his cow protagonist countless times through both painting and sculpture.

The source of his inspiration is manifold, but came largely from Kelly's discovery that during World War Two, government officials engaged artists including William Dobell to create life-size papier-mâché animals and place them in fields to confuse Japanese pilots about the location of Australian military bases. Delighted by the humour and absurdity of this proposition, Kelly began to paint the bloated, block-like papier-papier-mâché forms of Friesian cows.

At university Kelly studied the concept of simulacrum "something having merely the appearance of a certain thing without possessing its substance or proper qualities" and throughout history it has been a way of imitating, defying and deceiving perception'1 and this research compounded his interest in the use of camouflage and optical trickery during wartime. There is a kind of visual pun, an optical illusion to Kelly's iconic depictions of cows. As viewer we recognise a resemblance in shapes and colours, but they are not quite what they seem. They are at once real and surreal, playful and sober.

Drawing also from Dobell's infamous portrait of the artist Joshua Smith that was initially denigrated as no more than caricature, Kelly continues Dobell's stylistic predilection, painting his cow subject with an absurdly 'long spindly neck, small head, and a certain air of wonder'.2 Composed of patterned blocks of colour within big rectangular bodies, they appear in bizarre compositions; stacked vertically, precariously balanced, suspended upside down in the branches of a tree or, in our image, held up by trestles. The decision to leave our cow half-painted can be seen as both a call-back to Dobell's hand-crafted cows of war, but also to the idea of the artist as a creator of reality, mapping out an artificial experience of the world, his very own trompe l'oeil.

1. Lindsay, R., John Kelly: Deconstructing Australia, McClelland Gallery and Sculpture Park, Victoria, 2006, p. 6
2. Hammond, V., Cow up a Tree, July 1999, manuscript <http://www.johnkellyartist.com/documents/hammond.pdf> viewed 21 March 2014