The Macclesfield artist Ben Kelly is increasingly being compared to L S Lowry,and he doesn’t really like it.
There is, to be fair, a certain element of being flattered. Lowry after all is currently the subject of a major retrospective at the Tate ( review will be carried in the next edition) and his prices run into the millions of pounds– £5.7 million for “Good Friday, Daisy Nook” is the auction record – a far cry from the days when his exhibitions were largely unattended and paintings failed to sell.
So the comparison is a bit of a curate’s egg and Kelly soon gets over his annoyance. “I just think it’s a bit superficial. In fact, very superficial. I’m a Northerner, a figurative painter, I paint what’s around me and there are figures in my paintings. Other than that, I can’t see really the similarities. I’m a painter of light and colour, I don’t think Lowry was.
“Don’t get me wrong, I do think he is a superb and unique painter – and the retrospective apart from the George Formby music was stunning – but I’m completely different. Completely.”
One area where the comparison falls down is in early success. Where Lowry struggled to sell paintings as a young artist, Kelly is nothing short of a phenomenon. Each exhibition he has had had sold out before opening and his main dealers have waiting lists running into three figures.
No sooner is a painting finished than it finds a home. Indeed, his Macclesfield gallery has never actually had a Kelly painting that was for sale on its walls – they sell before hanging.
Bill Clark, of Clark Art in Hale, is one of Kelly’s two Northern dealers, (the other is the Gateway Gallery in Macclesfield) and arguably the most important dealer in Modern British Art outside London. He says the response of the buying public to Kelly’s art is “simply extraordinary”. “I do think he is going to be a very important painter and the public seem to recognise this, “ he says.
Clark is also a specialist in “Northern School “ art and says that painters within the school such as William Ralph Turner, Theodore Major and John Thompson all have an appeal which is difficult to define and that Kelly has the same type of appeal.
Indeed, next year Clark Art will hold a one-man exhibition of Kelly’s, the only living painter other than Salford’s Geoffrey Key that the gallery has thought merits a solo exhibition. The show is likely to significantly boost the artist’s gallery prices.
Kelly does not see himself as part of this “Northern School” and points out that his paintings sell around the country and also depict areas outside the region. He painted an acclaimed series of wild garlic foragers for a southern show and has also depicted landscape in Cornwall and Wales. He is even planning a series of paintings based on a stay in New York.
On the face of it Kelly’s art is easily understandable. Figurative paintings which always carry a narrative and quite often feature people, dogs and horses; gatherings of ordinary life. But to suggest they are simple paintings is to overlook his great technical skill, a fact recognised by his fellow artists.
Kelly’s paintings are essentially about light and its play on everyday scenes. The way in which he fractures light in a complex series of paint layers is the defining and recognisable mark of his work. In truth, his oils are amongst the most technically accomplished of any artist practicing in Britain today.
This should not come as a huge surprise. Kelly, 39, trained at London’s renowned Central Saint Martins, and even at a relatively early age retains a role as a senior art lecturer at a Midlands’ university – this despite the pleas of his dealers that he should paint full-time.
The artist, who lives in Kerridge with his partner Alison – the couple are engaged – is having none of it. “I’m enjoying what I do at the moment and having other interests allows me to maintain quality. If the pressure for new paintings becomes too intense then I can retreat into my other work. It’s a good excuse and the university have been very good to me.
“Besides, I’m still after improving and if I had to churn out paintings to pay the mortgage, the quality might drop. I couldn’t stand that.”
Born in Manchester, he is also enjoying his new home town which he believes is rapidly becoming Cheshire’s most important artistic centre. “ The change since I first arrived has been staggering, there is a real artistic buzz in the town. In fact, Macc probably has more art galleries than any other town of a comparable size.
“And not just purely commercial galleries, but artists’ collectives like the Longden which is really well run. Then there’s the Treacle Market and Barnaby. There are just loads going on.
“I just get this sense…a lot of people I know are moving to Macclesfield from places like Chorlton and Didsbury in Manchester. The town’s on a roll and I love it here.”
The arrival of Ben Kelly on the northern art scene came soon after his left St Martins, entering and winning the £15,000 Football in the Arts prize – the winning picture was bought by Turner Prize Winner Mark Wallenger . What made dealers sit up and notice was that Kelly was only the second painter to take the prize. The first -and the frown returns when it is mentioned – was L S Lowry. It seems fate.
After that success, he was invited to become Manchester City’s official artist in residence for a year “ a dream job” . A painting from that period was recently purchased by the National Football Museum, his first sale to a public collection.
At the same time his brand of quirky humour seems to strike a chord with the buying public. His most recent show “Looters and Other Stories” sold out weeks before its official opening and shows the artist is not afraid to tackle subjects that others might shy away from.
This extraordinary series of painting examined the Manchester City Centre riots in 2011, deftly and with great humour. Kelly seemed to see through the disorder to recognise that the riot was little more than one of the “gatherings” that he has spent much of his career depicting. These particular gatherers may have had darker intentions than the dog walkers of foragers depicted in any of his paintings, but they were, as the artist recognised, people engaged in their own little stories, blown along by the randomness of events. For Kelly the chaos of day-to-day living and the vain attempts of people to impose some kind of order is at the centre of his art.
And like all good narrative artists he zeros in on specific, but unexpected events. In this case it was the crowd looting the iconic Dawsons’ Music shop in the city centre. The television cameras then followed the rioters running down the street clutching a ragbag of stolen musical instruments.
“Even as the television pictures were running, I remember thinking wouldn’t it be just great if they formed their own orchestra (“Looters Orchestra” being the title of one canvas). I suppose I’m trying to get at the fact that humour can be found in the most difficult circumstances.”
Amusing as the series was, it posed surprisingly serious , almost Hogarthian questions. One painting “Unknown Bongo Player” makes the viewer almost laugh-out loud, until one realises that the comedy is being played out under a tribute to the fallen from war. The artist is playing with the viewer’s expectations and responses.
Kelly admits to being a huge admirer of Hogarth, cultivating the ability the find the extraordinary in scenes of everyday life. Each of his paintings appears to pull in the viewer, offering the chance for them to create their own narrative structure. It is a rare and quite impressive artistic gift.
Having already, unusually at such a young age, been the subject of a published monograph, “A Way of Seeing-The Art of Ben Kelly”, the artist is now preparing for a major show in Bath and is also considering offers from a number of London and South East dealers. Although, he would like to break into the mainstream London, he is, he says, in no hurry. “I’m hopefully at the beginning rather than the end of my artistic career, so there is no point in chasing things. I just paint the best I can and the rest will take care of itself.”
This interview first appeared in Macclesfield Today.