I say it is/the one you love: Tom Kelly’s Sappho

A few Sundays back (04/22/12), I visited the exhibition of Columbus-based artist, Tom Kelly called the greatest thing on the black earth – comprising of the artist’s most recent work to engage with the poetry of the Archaic Greek poet, Sappho. (Previous exhibitions on this theme include his museum debut at the Southern Ohio Museum for his if not, winter series of works on paper, named after the title of Anne Carson’s 2002 translation of Sappho). In conversation with the artist, he told me how he responds to Sappho in terms of the materiality of the fragmented papyrus as a found object and also to specific images in the poetry itself. We can appreciate the former in the piece called i think yes and then no (2012):

                      Tom Kelly i think yes and then no (2012) Acrylic painting, 42 x 64

While the title is taken from a two line Sappho fragment (fr. 51), it is the visual effect of the papyrus-like blur on the left side of the canvas that has the most immediate resonance for the work – especially is we compare the use of this image of the papyrus as used for the cover of Anne Carson’s translation:

Yet the quotation of the Sappho line for the title is still significant for Kelly, especially in how it corresponds to the overall theme of the exhibition. The title the greatest thing on the black earth – which is also that of a work within the series –  is taken from Sappho poem 16 (a slight variation on in Willis Barnstone’s 2009 translation). This poem opens with a meditation on the ‘greatest’/’supreme’/’most beautiful’ (the Greek is kalliston) sight on earth, which for the narrator/poet is not the majesty of an army in battle, but the ‘one you love’. The works within Kelly’s series, including i think yes and then no (2012), all side with Sappho’ answer to this question, albeit in various and conflicting ways. For example, your lovely face (2012), a lush charcoal-based work (Kelly often mixes charcoal with paint to create some startling effects), immediately evokes the back of a woman’s head of dark hair and positions the spectator in the role of the desiring subject.

Tom Kelly your lovely face (2012) Acrylic painting. 20 x 30 x 2.

On seeing this powerful work, I recalled not only the role of the desiring gaze in Sappho’s famous phainetai moi poem (Fr. 31), but also Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (Your gaze hits the side of my face) (1981-3):

Yet, the series also reflects on the troublesome side of Sappho’s answer, wherein works directly resist both the love-object and, simultaneously, the attempts by the audience to interpret the work. The best example of this is i could not have been more clear (2011):

Tom Kelly i could not have been more clear (2011)   Painting acrylic. 42 x 64.

The title – not taken from Sappho – seems a fragment from an explanation or rebuttal, amid the back and forth of a lover’s spat or the painful dissection at the end of a relationship. At the same time, the combination of the title and the work addresses the painting’s viewer in terms of the abstract form they are presented with and issues of clarity of expression and attempts to decode abstraction as somehow representing something (a dress? a bone? please, explain your work to me, Mr. Artist?).

Tom Kelly’s work makes us return to Sappho and our scholarly endeavors in reading her work with a more nuanced appreciation of how single phrases or images linger with us as readers and how our interpretations are also caught in the bind between erotic encounter and aesthetic interpretation.

(For more information on Tom Kelly’s work visit www.absolutearts.com/portfolios/t/tkelly)

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