Shelagh Keeley and the
Idea of Drawing
…how to inscribe in the work at the same time its contemporaneity, its irrevocable adherance to the present and to its “writtenness” (la parole), and its provenance from a distant origin, which makes of every work a speech inspired (une parole soufflée) by the past of language.
L’origine et l’oubli (1998)
Shelagh Keeley's work over the past two decades has been primarily drawing. Her free gesturalism outlines archetypal shapes and textured surfaces that reveal her attachment to a deep tradition of drawing, not drawing as illustration but of drawing as symbol-formation. Keeley has the uncanny ability to outline a simple shape drawn by hand, and have it hover between a complex of different symbolic associations. She is a virtuoso of line, shape and texture. Her sense of line and shape is perfect in its awkwardness and elegant in its economy of means. It is fearless in its directness. The unique trace of her finger in the smear of the line and its wavering edge reveals the rhythm of thought driven by submerged reason.
Much of the writing about her work has been about her subject matter, which is focussed on themes of the body and the organs that supply the pulsation of life. These themes are essential to her art. They are its necessity. But her treatment of these themes is inseparable from the act of drawing, which is the means by which the body is inscribed into the symbol, and self-consciousness is inscribed into the body. Drawing marks the body-consciousness as presence, gives it objective life in the formation of the symbolic gesture. It outlines the form of the idea within the texture of the field.
Her drawings have also been accompanied by appropriated elements taken from printed texts, photographs, and objects. This combinatory practise links the expressive drive to inscribe, to write from a position of subjectivity which is the primary instinct released by the act of drawing, with reference to an open archive of free-floating signs, what I call the ‘common language’ accumulated from the past. This is not an alienated, strictly ego-oriented subjectivity. Although the body is in fact the precise point of origination of this personal, individuated subjectivity, this is a subjectivity which is also, through the signifying process, the writing of the image-idea, fully integrated with the world of common experience. It is the metaphorical synthesis of the personal and the universal that erupts between the combination of pregiven images taken from the archive and the direct trace of the drawing that originates in the gesture of the body, a gesture that is directed towards meaning. These image-ideas are drawn from the specificity of the body and the corpus of language that has been inherited from deep historical time and across many cultural differences. This is where the question of the archetypal arises. The inner subjective drive to form symbolic utterances issuing from the individuated self (ego, consciousness) that we habitally attach to the question of identity is spoken through the free-floating symbols that exist in the common language objectively outside of the self. Our subjectivity, no matter how much it is individuated or differentiated from others, always derives from our bodily, somatic existence, a fact of life that we inevitably share with others, whomever they are. This gives rise to the image of the archetype, the common language. The task of the artist has been to retrieve, or more recently to originate, and to breathe life into these symbols, and then pass them back into the common culture. The common language that Keeley suscitates is linked to archetypal signs for the body as an organism that generates metaphors for containment and transfer. These are images and shapes which are universally recognizable and thus legible from many different perspectives. But they are also very specific.
Both of these sources, the specificity of the moment located in the body-consciousness of the author-artist and the historical continuity of the symbolic archetype merge in the work of Shelagh Keeley. They pass back and forth in analogical exchange, in passages, in transfer points, points of entry and exit, inhalation and exhalation, of breathing. She gives objective form to this concept through image-metaphors referring to orifices, lungs, the aorta, and the nervous, vascular and intestinal systems. There is often an analogical shift in the image, a passage in the concept that blurs the distinctions between a lung-shape and an amphora-shape, for instance, so that there is a precarious balance between what can be newly imagined and what has already been imagined. Origination in the contemporary sense of artistic innovation and the concept of origins, the inherited historical continuity of symbolic language, are thus fused into a poetic presentness that reinscribes the self into the world so that time is suspended and alienation is annihilated in this be-coming in the ecstasy of the moment.
The support, or the ground, the milieu, the field, or the screen for this projection of the writing of the self is as important as the writing itself. Keeley writes (draws) out of her body, out of her physical self, and out of the assembled body of cultural signs that have been passed down through the millennia and then projects these signs of consciousness onto a physical surface. She inscribes the conceptual dimension of text and its symbolic references onto the material immediacy of texture and surface. This re-presentation of the idea as material effect gives substance to forces that are primarily intuitive, spiritual, and intellectual—and converts them into signs that assert and confirm presence. This is what I understand to be the essence of drawing, her drawing.
She chooses a variety of surfaces, walls, sheets of metal, fragments of illustrated and printed texts, the floor, canvas and more often, sheets of paper, sometimes fine drawing paper, sometimes cheap kraft paper. Some of these surfaces are common space (walls that already have a history of use and the ghosted graffiti of previous inscriptions), while others are exclusive to art: the fine paper, the pages of books and certainly the white wall itself of the contemporary art museum. These surfaces offer that sensuous tactile and concrete resistance to the caresses of the hand (the gesture of the body) where the soft inner core and fluidity of the symbolic imaginary can be refracted. These images are not other worlds that inhabit the perspectival unity of pictorial space as such. There is no frame, no rationalized limit that defines space as a segregated and thus displacable unit of reality — what we know as the picture. These sign-images are more a form of image-writing, an inscription that skips across the surface, or is smeared, engraved in a surface that is frameless and thus extensible with lived space. This tradition of wall-writing is an ancient one.
The similarities between Keeley’s work and prehistoric cave painting and global rock art are obvious. Her work is inspired by it but not derived from it. It is a continuation of rock art in contemporary terms: not only in style and technique but also in function. It plunges the conundrum of individuated consciousness and primal archetypal histories into the context of contemporary art.
This tradition is an unbroken continuity. It runs throughout world cultural history as constructed by western historiography over the past century, And if we account for differences in subject matter and technique it can even include medieval and baroque mural painting and innumerable contemporary examples from Jannis Kounellis to Joseph Beuys and Sol Lewitt. Nor can we ignore what today we call ‘graffiti art.’ But Keeley comes closest to the iconographies of tribalist art of which she has first-hand experience.
These similarities exist not only in the iconography itself, but also in the open anarchic compositions that characterize her personal style of drawing. In this aspect her work is very close to the openness of global rock art, where images that have very specific meanings and narrative functions are integrated into the limitless landscape and drawn and redrawn over time as its mythic meaning is constantly reinterpeted by successive generations. Her work is often improvised as in rock art where the fluid shifts of imagery take uncanny advantage of the specificity of the landscape, the unique undulations of surface that are determined by the topography of the site.
But Shelagh Keeley certainly doesn’t shy away from the flat white bright rectangular walls of the contemporary exhibition space which presents the play of meaning and the meaning of play (is this space so different from the sacred spaces of the past — the rough walls of the Lascaux caves or the throne room of Knossos?) in the hieratic and temporary languages of modernity. In her earliest work she drew murals directly on to the wall of the museum. She also makes installations in the museum of mural-sized grid-like installations of large drawings on paper. The compositions in these drawings float openly across the space of the large sheets of paper, creating eccentric rhythms and unexpected dynamics of form. Her distinctive ability to compose in space thus ranges from the room-sized installation to a sheet of drawing paper and the more intimate scale of her several book-works. Extensive physical space of the surface or field and the conceptual space of the symbol overcome the limits of the context. But she is also attracted to hidden spaces, recesses grottos, closets—spaces that resonate with interior mysteries — forgotten spaces reinvested by her with ritualistic power.
There is certainly an aspect of the hermetic involved in this that is a part of all of these traditions and which involves entry points into how these symbols are meant to be read. Like many forms of contemporary art as well as tribal art, and even graffiti art, there is an aspect of initiation into the hermetic world of universal meaning. Initiation into this world of signification is a part of the act of passage that influences how meaning is gathered socially to the work. How this meaning gathers value is also an aspect of why we search for value in it to begin with. To know what are we looking for also provides the key to how meaning can be revealed. These dimensions of imagination and knowledge are fused together in the creative process in which the modern author, the artist, is simultaneously the initiator of original individuated texts and the performer and transmitter of collective meanings that we are given to rediscover. The drawings of Shelagh Keeley guide us there.