NEW EYES ON PEABODY ESSEX
Shelagh Keeley draws on walls. She has been doing so for the past thirty-plus years, and as we go to press she is drawing on the walls of the renowned Abteiberg Museum of contemporary art in Monchengladbach, Germany. So perhaps it is no surprise that the Canadian native zeroed in on the remarkable late eighteenth-century Chinese export wallpaper at PEM. "I was floored by it," she says. "It looked so contemporary, and it touched a nerve in the way it brought one place and time into another, just as I do in my work. Plus," she adds, "it was actually painted by hand-up close you can see places where the artist changed his mind and redrew lines."
Keeley does much more than draw on walls, of course. She photographs, makes collages, creates artist's books of drawings and photographs-some one-offs, others printed in small editions-and she does series of smaller drawings. But, always, she is expressing her universe of the moment, almost as though she is writing a journal, drawing from past and immediate experience, emotion, poetry, sometimes politics, and history. She uses a slew of different mediums, from charcoal, pastels, graphite, and gouache to more visceral wax crayons, acrylic paint, oil stick, and pure pigment. She's worked on plaster, steel, and wood walls, as well as on paper.
At Canada's York University (from which she received a BFA in 1977) Keeley found herself drawn to African art and anthropology and, at eighteen, made her first visit to Africa. By her senior year she realized that art, not academics, was her destiny. She subsequently returned to Africa several times, including making a twenty-three thousand kilometer trip across the continent in 1983, which resulted in her first major works, one of which was the walls of a room in the Embassy Hotel, an alternative art venue in London, Ontario. It already embodied her concept of taking one space and time and bringing it into another. "I took a building, a fort, that I had experienced in Algeria and brought it into that room using photos and other media on the walls. It was sort of a political statement. South Africa was still under apartheid, and the fort represented the success of Algeria's fight for freedom from France."
Over the next two decades Keeley lived in New York and Paris, and back-and-forth between the two, before returning to Toronto in 2006. "In Paris I lived on the rue de Babylone in the seventh arrondissement-it was like slipping into the eighteenth century. I love the fabrics, the painting, the Sèvres porcelain, the interiors, the architecture of the whole period, but especially the clothing, jewelry, and the colors of the Directoire. I have always been drawn to decorative arts-most artists are-we don't work simply in our own time and place."
A constant traveler, Keeley has produced site-specific works around the globe. One of the most unusual-and provocative-resulted from an invitation in 2009 to work at a model housing complex that Mao had created for his workers in Shanghai in 1952. "It may have seemed fabulous at the time, but it is pretty grim today," she says. "Many of the residents are still there-they cannot afford to go anywhere else." She did not want to invade their homes, but across the street was a park with an "odd little teahouse or pavilion by a lake," she recalls. The building was falling apart, the plaster walls pockmarked with cracks. Referencing traditional methods of repairing ceramics by filling and painting, she decided to fill the fissures with gold paint, creating what looks something like an expressionist painting. "The Communist party ended up loving it," she says. "We made small books of photographs of the project and of the people and gave it to many of them-they cried looking at them-though illiterate, they were so proud to see themselves and the work in a book."
There are hazards to drawing on walls if you want to preserve your legacy as an artist, of course: they are hard to display in museums and they are prone to demolition or overpainting. Jonathan Hallam, an art and antiques dealer in Hudson, New York, recalls a wall he commissioned from Keeley in his New York City apartment in the 1990s: "I had always been fascinated by the painted rooms of the mid-century European avant-garde and wanted Shelagh to work in this way-the mural she created was a spiritual and powerful blend of the organic and literary, the perfect backdrop for my pared down modernist sensibility. But I sold the apartment a couple of years later and moved permanently to Columbia County. I often wonder-and regret-what might have happened to it." At the time, Keeley says, it wasn't an issue. "My work is about immediacy, about the moment in time I am creating it."
Even so, she is very pleased that the Abteiberg Museum has sourced a new kind of paper that fuses with the wall, so that the project she is doing there can be removed and preserved. We are hopeful that she will soon return to the Peabody Essex Museum and create a work there that will bring one time and place into another.