Pulling Through, the title of Chris Kelly’s show at Gallery 444 in Provincetown, is both a nod to his Provincetown debut — he’s pulling through town — and a reference to the act of pulling ink through a screen. The Eastham artist and designer will show a series of paintings and small sculptures created primarily through silk-screening, a printmaking process using delicate screens to transfer images onto a surface.
Kelly’s introduction to silk screen printing was at a motocross shop in Tampa, Fla., where he worked cleaning screens used to produce motorcycle graphics. Although the shop was far removed from the world of fine arts, it became a part of his arts education.
Through observation, he “understood how they were building up the layers to create imagery,” recalls Kelly. “I thought it was really cool, because you get immediate results when you’re doing it.” After establishing himself as a graphic designer and using silk-screening in some of his projects, he returned to the technique when he started to make artwork.
Again, he found inspiration in a small-scale industrial setting. After a friend opened a wood shop in Tampa, “I had access to all this wood that he had laying around,” says Kelly. “And so I started screen printing on it, and I did some blocks, kind of like those in the corner.” He gestures to a group of small wooden sculptures in his studio. He set up a workspace on the property of his friend’s wood shop, eventually turning it into a gallery.
Kelly grew up in South Bend, Ind. and moved to the Cape in 2016 with his wife, Katie Emond, whose family had a house in Eastham. Here, he has 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, an illustrator and educator. The two transformed a nondescript shingled building into a stylish white-cube space, showing a roster of young artists — some local, others from Kelly’s broad network. The gallery was a bright spot on the cultural landscape, favoring work with a colorful, clean aesthetic and blurring lines between fine art, design, and illustration. It closed in January 2022.
In the rear area of the gallery, Kelly and MacLelland shared studio space, which they lost when their landlord, Willy’s Gym owner Barbara Niggel, didn’t renew their lease, citing an interest in developing the space, Kelly said. It is now slated to open as a “beach shop and local artisan 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 his own work at Longstreet along with that of other artists. “I like the idea of being out with my work in a gallery setting.”
At Gallery 444, which rents space to exhibiting artists, Kelly plans to be in the gallery for the two weeks of the show. “I’ve never worked in Provincetown,” he says. “I’m excited.”
Kelly composes his pieces using visual elements with universal recognition. “I’m using a language that is ubiquitous,” he says. It ranges from quilt patterns to elementary circles and squares. In an exuberant orange painting, 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” signs, and “Fudge,” reproduced in the same font as that adorning the windows of Cabot’s candy shop.
He freely pulls from advertising, design history, and even the creations of his four-year-old son, Cosmo Kelly. In Blue Notes, an oblong shape reads as the cut-paper creation of a child, its dark form floating in space, engaged in a Hoffman-esque push-pull dialogue with other more hard-edged shapes. This painting, like End of the Day, is a largely monochromatic all-over composition.
Using a ubiquitous form like a circle, Kelly says, “you can start to create a conversation with anyone else that used a circle.” His painting Bokeh Dots of overlapping multi-colored transparent circles echoes Damien Hirst’s market-friendly dot paintings.
In addition to conversing with contemporary artists, Kelly places himself in conversation with mid-century modernists, lifting shapes from Eames’s shell chairs and intermixing them with imagery from other times and places. In one painting, Kelly works with a razzle dazzle pattern, a striped design painted on warships in World War I to camouflage a ship’s movement.
Kelly’s paintings are very much of the present and owe as much to design as to fine art. They recall sampling in hip hop, but also the collage aesthetic of Robert Rauschenberg’s early silk screen paintings.
“If you look at different items that have been designed — and this goes back hundreds of years — you will find this pattern,” Kelly says, pointing to a design of interlocking triangles he favors in his paintings. “It’s very simple, right? Anyone could scratch this into a rock. I’m sure people have doodled something like this on a notebook. It’s something that’s universal. You know it. You might have seen it. There’s something about that that I like.”
The event: An exhibition of works by Chris Kelly
The time: May 20 to 31; opening reception Friday, May 20, 4 to 10 p.m.
The place: Gallery 444, 444 Commercial St., Provincetown