Pulling through, the title of Chris Kelly’s exhibition at Gallery 444 in Provincetown, is both a nod to his beginnings in Provincetown – he crosses town – and a reference to the act of shooting ink at through a screen. The Eastham artist and designer will present a series of paintings and small sculptures created primarily by screen printing, an etching process using delicate screens to transfer images onto a surface.
Kelly’s introduction to screen printing took place at a motocross shop in Tampa, Florida, where he worked cleaning screens used to produce motorcycle graphics. Although the shop is far removed from the world of fine art, it is part of his artistic education.
Through observation, he “understood how they built the layers to create images,” Kelly recalls. “I thought that was really cool, because you get immediate results when you do that.” After establishing himself as a graphic designer and using screen printing in some of his projects, he returned to the technique when he started creating works of art.
Again, he found inspiration in a small-scale industrial setting. After a friend opened a woodworking shop in Tampa, “I got access to all that lumber he had around,” Kelly says. “And so I started screen printing on it, and I did some blocks, kind of like the ones in the corner.” He points to a group of small wooden sculptures in his studio. He set up a workspace on the property of his friend’s carpentry shop, which he eventually turned into a gallery.
Kelly grew up in South Bend, Indiana and moved to Cape Town in 2016 with his wife, Katie Emond, whose family had a home in Eastham. Here he continued to work as a graphic designer (including for the Provincetown Independent) and to develop his artistic practice.
In June 2020, he opened the Longstreet Gallery on Route 6 in Eastham with his friend Keith MacLelland, illustrator and educator. The two transformed a nondescript clapboard building into a sleek white cube space, showing off a roster of young artists — some local, some from Kelly’s extensive network. The gallery was a bright spot in the cultural landscape, promoting work with a colorful, clean aesthetic and blurred lines between fine art, design and illustration. It closed in January 2022.
At the back of the gallery, Kelly and MacLelland shared studio space, which they lost when their landlord, Willy’s Gym owner Barbara Niggel, did not renew their lease, citing interest in development of space, Kelly said. It is now planned to open as a “local beach shop and craft market” run by Niggel’s son, Benten Niggel, owner of Paddle Cape Cod MA.
“When you have your own gallery, you get so much immediate feedback,” Kelly says, reflecting on the experience of exhibiting her own work at Longstreet along with that of other artists. “I like the idea of going out with my work in a gallery.”
At Gallery 444, which rents space to exhibiting artists, Kelly plans to be in the gallery for the two weeks of the show. “I never worked in Provincetown,” he says. “I’m excited.”
Kelly composes her pieces using visual elements with universal recognition. “I use a language that is ubiquitous,” he says. It ranges from quilt patterns to basic circles and squares. In exuberant orange paint, End of the day, he composes overlapping screen-printed images in a loose grid, working with universal signifiers of Provincetown, like wave patterns, “No Parking” and “Fudge” signs, reproduced in the same font that adorns the windows of Cabot’s confectionery.
He freely draws inspiration from advertising, design history and even the creations of his four-year-old son, Cosmo Kelly. In blue notes, an oblong shape reads like the creation of a cut-out paper child, its dark form floating in space, engaged in a Hoffman-like push-pull dialogue with other harder forms. This table, like End of the day, is a largely monochromatic all-over composition.
By using a ubiquitous shape like a circle, Kelly says, “you can start creating a conversation with anyone else who’s used a circle.” His painting Bokeh dots of overlapping multicolored transparent circles echoes Damien Hirst’s dot paintings, suitable for the market.
As well as conversing with contemporary artists, Kelly engages in conversation with mid-century modernists, lifting forms from Eames’ shell chairs and blending them with imagery from other times and places. In one painting, Kelly works with a dazzling pattern, a striped pattern painted on warships during World War I to camouflage a ship’s movement.
Kelly’s paintings are very contemporary and owe as much to design as to fine art. They are reminiscent of sampling in hip hop, but also the collage aesthetic of Robert Rauschenberg’s early serigraphs.
“If you look at different objects that have been designed – and it goes back hundreds of years – you will find this pattern,” Kelly says, pointing to a design of interlocking triangles that he favors in his paintings. “It’s very simple, isn’t it?” Anyone could scrape that off a rock. I’m sure people have scribbled something like this in a notebook. It is something universal. You know. You may have seen it. There’s something about it that I like.
The event: An exhibition of the works of Chris Kelly
The weather: May 20 to 31; opening Friday May 20 from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.
The place: 444 Gallery, 444 Commercial Street, Provincetown