Stories we tell ourselves

The paintings of Richard Killeen
Auckland City Art Gallery, Toi o Tamaki

notes towards hanging a killeen cut-out

In twentieth century art the simplest ideas (Mondrian's masking tape, Morandi's bottles, Pollock's paint dribbled through the bottom of a can...) are those in the end that turn out to be the most intellectually demanding, those from which maker and viewer get the most mileage. The premise of New Zealand painter, Richard Killeen, is simple: to paint or produce images on pieces of cut-out aluminium, each provided with a hanging hole. These pieces can then be hung in a cluster according to the preferences of the purchaser/spectator/curator 'so that the painting is more democratic and less hierarchical' (Killeen). At first, in the late 1970s, Killeen produced literal and painstakingly cut-out shapes of insects and geometric forms lacquered in car paint. Later these cut-out shapes became larger and thinner, with riveted additions and they no longer slavishly followed the outlines of their forms. More recently he has produced a series of works on jewellery tags that use ready-made holes. When one appreciates the entirety of his work over the last thirty years, as is possible in this impressive retrospective, one understands that Killeen has always been engaged in 'cutting out': his early realist work is full of cut-outs (its suburban figures are pasted against a background of interiors or landscapes); his chance paintings of the early 1970s involve the placement of selected shapes on board; and his abstract 'comb' pattern paintings of the late 1970s derive from the technique of stencilling.

It is precisely by a shifting of perspectives that we establish something's reality. Killeen's work sees things in terms of other things, it collects things together, in all those dictionary meanings of collection: to gather in; to infer, deduce; to regain command of oneself, one's powers; to obtain payment for. Killeen is not precious about this process for, on the one hand, we the spectators/purchasers/gallery curators get to hang the work according to our preferences, we reconfigure the collection, and, on the other, through his use of the computer and the photocopier, Killeen 's images circulate and recirculate in an economy of politics and desire.

This retrospective exhibition confirms Killeen 's reputation as one of New Zealand's major artists. So why don't you play his game?

1 .1 Player: An actualisation of the role of the spectator/purchaser in making interpretations of the proper name. The player will have various national, social, cultural backgrounds, ideological choices and philosophies. A player may treat as s/he wants the painting and may even deny or ignore some of the rules (that is, hang more than one cut-out shape on the same nail, deliberately remove some of the designated number of shapes, disperse by hanging the shapes of the same work in different rooms, add a different nail hole)––but this will be seen as playing in bad faith. The game may be repeated and the painting rehung as long as the player finds the proper name of any interest.

1.2 Painting: Also known as cut-out. A set of objects made and/or painted during the life of the 'real person' which has been given the status of a semiotic object, or set of objects, given a title and capable of being used for the interpretation of the proper name. Although it retains the proper name, the set of objects may not necessarily have been produced by the 'real person', viz the appropriated, photocopied, computer-generated or manipulated image. In the case of Killeen the painting arrives as pieces of painted aluminium each with a small hole contained in a wooden box, a tin, or more recently a matchbox.

1.3 Proper name: The signature of the proper name stands for the 'real person' but is also considered as an element of discourse and therefore is a sign. Its meaning is set up by the interpretations of the various pieces of the paintings. Among those told are stories and signatures of place, gender, war, art history, the self (Francis Pound, catalogue essay). There also is a set of elements that form the received knowledge of the person: statements by the artist, what has happened or is said to have happened to the 'real person', anecdotes etcetera.

1.4 Critical works: Interpretations of the proper name evolving from various other games such as biographies, theses, catalogue essays, this review, etcetera. Exhibition curator Francis Pound has already produced a large body of informative writing on Killeen including a two-volume doctoral thesis.

1.5 Rules: Established by the proper name and may vary from painting to painting. Some examples are: 'Hang on small nails in any order forty-three mm apart', 'Hang in a group touching', etcetera.

1.6 Frame: There is no frame. 'The painting is more democratic and less hierarchical in its organisation than conventional framed painting' (Killeen).

1. 7 Interpretation: Any conclusion drawn from a combination of pieces hung on a flat wall. The meaning of the painting cannot be the privilege of the painting itself. It is always a question of the relation of two performances, that of the work and that the interpretation.