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— Catalogue Essay by Kate Nodrum

An exhibition in two parts. 

Firstly, a group of studies which recently returned from an exhibition at the Guernica Peace Museum, Spain called “Can Art Stop a Bullet?” affectionately referred to as “From Guernica with Love”.  The studies were for Kelly’s 2016 public art commission at the State Library of Victoria for exhibition in the La Trobe Reading Room (The Dome), “Peace or War / The Big Picture”, a 12.5m high limited edition print (illustrated back cover).  Predominantly drawings, these works represent – both literally and symbolically, the atrocities of war, the importance of accepting our history, of enacting change, and the power of pacifism.  Iratxe Momoitio, director of the Guernica Peace Museum, said of the show: “Some time ago we had an exhibition of Picasso’s drawings and studies of his ‘Guernica’.  It gave us an insight into the thinking and process that led to that remarkable painting.  Now, similarly, we include dozens of drawings and works of William Kelly’s influential artwork ‘Peace or War / The Big Picture.” 

Second, a selection of works which appear in the 2019 feature length documentary film ‘Can Art Stop a Bullet? William Kelly’s Big Picture’ which tells the story behind many of the works in the 2016 ‘Peace or War’ banner and, in doing so, reveals the artist’s long career in art and activism. Directed by Mark Street and produced by Fiona Cochrane, the international award-winning documentary was filmed across five continents and features conversations with artists, activists, philosophers and writers including Martin Sheen, A.C. Grayling, Ian McLean, Sasha Grishin, Tilman Ruff and Rosemary Lester. It has been released in the United States and Australia, and has been invited to be screened at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. 

Born in Buffalo, New York, in 1943, Kelly was a steel worker before he began studying at Philadelphia College of Art, graduating in 1968.  He was awarded the Fulbright Fellowship the same year and, after moving to Melbourne, continued studies at the National Gallery School.  His first exhibitions in Australia were at Strines Gallery in Melbourne in 1969 and at Watters Gallery in Sydney in 1970.  He was Dean of Art at the VCA in the 1970s, in 1993 held a major solo exhibition at Heide MOMA titled ‘A Contemporary Tragedy’, and in 1999 was invited to represent Australia in a collaborative work with Aboriginal artist Benjamin McKeown for the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights International Print Portfolio. 

Kelly’s work has always been figurative and concerned with the human condition.  Early works from the mid-1960s include a group of drawings of steelworkers that convey both a sensitivity of observation and a strong graphic quality.  Collaboration has always played a part in Kelly’s work, and is one of the foundations of his socially aware art practice – and outlook on life in general.  Early influences included the group performances of the pacifist DADA artists, as well as some involved with the Bauhaus.  Today, he works with artists all over the world whose subject matter is a response to their personal and national experience of war, terror and political violence.  These include the Troubles in Ireland, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, the 9/11 attack in New York, and the Bombing of Guernica.  

Kelly’s work is included in national, state, regional, university, public and private collections across the world including the National Gallery of Australia, the Guernica Peace Museum in Spain, the United Nations Collection in Switzerland and the Durban Art Gallery in South Africa.  He has received major awards for peace and human rights on three continents including, in the USA, the Courage of Conscience Award with other recipients such as Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Rosa Parks and John Lennon.  

Kate Nodrum, 2021

Watch the documentary film on demand with Vimeo

Since its establishment in 1984, the Charles Nodrum Gallery’s exhibition program embraces a diversity of media and styles - from painting, sculpture & works on paper to graphics and photography; from figurative, geometric, gestural, surrealist & social comment to installation & conceptually based work.