Donald Kelley Brings the Outdoors Inside

Land art — or earth art — is a term for when artists go outside the gallery and, often using indigenous materials like soil, water and stone, create large works that seem integrated into the surrounding natural landscape.

click to enlarge 'Ramps for Leonardo'
'Ramps for Leonardo'

Land art — or earth art — is a term for when artists go outside the gallery and, often using indigenous materials like soil, water and stone, create large works that seem integrated into the surrounding natural landscape. I recently wrote about a new film called Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art, directed by James Crump, former chief curator at Cincinnati Art Museum (see “Land Art,” issue of Sept. 30).

When it works, it is a sublime merging of art and nature — awe-inspiring. But that merging of art-making and “outdoors” materials can also happen inside a gallery, although it’s a difficult undertaking.

Donald Kelley, a professor emeritus at the University of Cincinnati’s DAAP, is taking on that task currently at downtown’s Weston Art Gallery. Transformed Worlds is on view through Nov. 8, and the work stands out for its sensitivity, thoughtfulness and ability to thoroughly transport.

Because of the subtlety, repetition and minimalism of Kelley’s work, it runs the risk of being swallowed up by its surroundings. He does struggle with that with his pieces in the street-level upper gallery, where the bright light, high ceiling and alternating expanses of glass and stainless steel compete for attention. But in the downstairs gallery, in a windowless space with white walls and a wood floor, he lets nature make its presence felt. He does so in a beautiful but completely unsentimental way. In fact, his vision is austere and sometimes ominous. You could cut the tension with a small garden tool.

“Five Wedges,” a 2015 piece that occupies one wall, might at a casual glance look like some paper airplanes — or small drones — flew into a wall and got partially embedded.

But they are silvery steel wedges intentionally placed in this location. And each is packed with dry, powdered white clay, which is neither smooth nor securely encased by the wedges’ sides. You can see cracks, ripples, erosions and collapsed or missing spaces.

You can also see where clay has spilled or been intentionally smeared onto the surrounding wall. Particles collect along the edge of the wooden floor and along the baseboard’s burgundy strip. (I hope whoever vacuums knows it’s art, not dirt — or maybe that it’s dirt as art.)

Another piece on an adjacent wall, “Drifting Ellipse,” strikes the same effect on a larger scale with darker material. It was first created in 2005 and revised this year. There are 20 steel shelves with sharp edges, each holding gray magnesium silicate. They are in three asymmetrical rows, and there is a vertical strip of powder — a dirt shadow — on the wall between rows.

I had an oddly good feeling looking at this, realizing the art was making me pay attention to its surroundings. Paintings or photographs on a wall don’t do that. The piece made me realize that gallery art need not be apart from wherever it is. It can interact and become one with its surroundings.

But it is a wary interaction. And that’s a metaphor, one assumes, for our shared space on earth with nature. This is best communicated in “Timeline,” which was revised this year from its 2006 creation and which occupies four gallery walls (one quite small).

It has the same materials and general properties as the other pieces but is more turbulent and disturbing. Almost all of the steel shelves — holding powdered clay — slightly overlap, providing a sense of movement. The “dirt shadow” is thicker and muddier here; it looks violently splattered.

And at the ends of several shelves, sharp metal shards protrude from the clay. They are not neatly arranged; they look more like miniature versions of newly excavated artifacts. As a result, they both symbolize danger and are dangerous in their own right. And yet, as art, their shapes, color and texture nicely interrupt the piece’s repetition.

A fourth piece in this gallery, the new “Ramps for Leonardo,” has the most color and materials — small glass and steel objects along with recycled motor oil join powdered clay. The mixing of oil and clay produces a colorfully gunky substance, but this piece looks too obviously human-manipulated.

Overall, Transformed Worlds shows that Kelley is someone who can bring the outdoors in.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected]

Scroll to read more Visual Arts articles


Join CityBeat Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.