A portrait of the artist as part of the landscape

“This exhibit isn’t about me, it’s about this region,” said Lee Kelly, addressing the assembled arts and culture press of Portland.

“This exhibit isn’t about me, it’s about this region,” said Lee Kelly, addressing the assembled arts and culture press of Portland. “If I can do this for 50 years and be supported and nurtured by this community, well, I think that really says something.”

The art certainly says much more than the man himself. The friendly 79-year-old offered only these two sentences before inviting the assembled guests to enjoy the exhibit. This gentle, quiet figure of the artist is a contrast to his magisterial works of steel and rust, paint and poetry. There is, however, a certain sense to this. From the very beginning, Kelly’s art has been powerful and bold, yet the modest soul of the man has always come through in his pieces.

It is perhaps because of this rare quality that so many of Kelly’s massive earthbound sculptures have become permanent fixtures of our landscape. The Portland area is home to no less than 31 of the artist’s public sculptures: gigantic, jagged shards of cor-ten steel, which seem to have loosed themselves free from the earth and rusted oblongs and polished spheres which appear to have fallen from the heavens. Like Stonehenge, they are at once both natural and alien—mechanisms of perpetual motion from another reality, geological aberrations that have always been.

The beauty of the Portland Art Museum’s Lee Kelly exhibit is not only its focus on the artist’s connection to our region, but also its concern with connecting us to the artist. PAM has produced a beautiful full-color map that guides art patrons to his public sculptures, which are accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists in the Portland area. They have also created a clever iPhone application for navigating the exhibit at the Maribeth Wilson Collins Gallery. Patrons may borrow an iPod touch upon entrance to the exhibit, thus becoming their own guided tour.

There is access to audio interviews with the artist in which he discusses the background, inspiration or process for specific pieces in the exhibit. Paintings and sculptures detailed in the iPhone tour are clearly marked, allowing the patron to explore Kelly’s 50-year career to the depth of their choosing.

The exhibit itself is splendid. Curator Bruce Guenther’s great affection for the artist shines through in this 27-piece selection. The rare opportunity to glimpse some of the artist’s early abstract-expressionist paintings is one that should not be missed. Images of these early works do them no justice, for it is only in person that one can properly survey what lies within their rough landscapes. Valleys of thick paint and textured canvas reveal the early geometry of Kelly’s structural sensibility. This is no linear exhibition, however, and though Guenther may lead us to the metaphorical stream of Kelly’s consciousness, he does not demand that we drink.

A clever use of the gallery’s space allows for a more individual experience of the artist’s life, one that feels both unhurried and unflinching. In “Summer’s Gone II,” Kelly marks the passing of his first wife. The bronze piece is not an exercise in sentimentality, however—it feels like a moment rather than a memorial.

In the more recent third phase of Kelly’s career, he adds flourishes of poetry to pieces like “Leaving Katmandu” from 2006. Gold leaf adorns the simple and ornate beauty of “Sulawesi VII,” a wall-mounted sculpture that reminds me of the coins produced by the brilliant Polish sculptor Stanislav Szukalski.

Maquette for Gate F, Candlestick Park from 1971 sits unassumingly in the lobby, beneath the shadow of a massive construct of cor-ten steel. It is a contradiction in its very nature—a perfect miniature rendering of the massive structure which surrounds Candlestick Park. It is not a gate in the modern sense, but rather hints at something which might decorate the gateway to the Roman Coliseum—something from another age, adorning the entrance to a stadium where dreams are made, and yet in context it appears so much a part of the landscape. Only sitting here before us in miniature, completely out of context, is the full artistry of the piece itself apparent. Kelly has so deftly woven his art into the fabric of our community that it is inseparable from the earth itself. It is a rare caliber of artist whose life appears out of context in a museum, and Kelly is that artist. He has lived his life and his art in our community. That is his context. The Portland Art Museum’s fine exhibition of Kelly’s life, out of context, brings us closer to the man whose art was always here. ?