Artist Michael D.B. Kelly has hailed from Ventura for many years now, but we haven't had much chance to get a good look at his work in these parts. Here is an artist whose unique range of interests requires consideration of a sizable body of work rather than a token one or two pieces to get the point. We get that opportunity with his current show of large, unabashedly colorful paintings at the Bagier Gallery in Ojai.
Kelly is not one to remain contentedly in one place. He draws on his various studies of Renaissance and pre-Columbian culture, combined with his own contemporary instincts, to create paintings that look back with modern eyes.
But he doesn't do so with the half-winking art historicist's savvy of some postmodernists. There's reverence here for things he perceives to be ancient and true.
Folklore and historicism enter the picture in paintings such as "Giotto Eludes a Boar," with its twisting mountain contours and crags and speckled sky.
"Dante's Church (Homage to Francesco Rosselli)" is a tightly packed maze of a composition in which red tile roofs are set in jagged relationships, like syncopated visual rhythms in a crosshatch.
"Renaissance Woman" is another weirdly dazzling painting leaning on old art models, with a compressed, skewed perspective and fantastical touches surrounding the frank composure of a woman on horseback.
Kelly's own particular course of study, from European art centers to a fascination with the Mesoamerican world, naturally filters into his work, as in "Room 1, Vacation in Cuenca (Memories of Bonampak)."
Here, an image of Mayan musicians with post-colonial architecture seen in the background through a fog--signifying the juncture of the New World imposing itself on the Old--harks to Kelly's time 25 years ago spent studying ancient culture, in terms of art and music, in the jungle of Chiapas.
Later, he studied with the famed Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo, to whom has dedicated the piece "Spirit of Colima," a variation on Tamayo's lithograph "Wounded Dog." Kelly's not above a well-placed pun, as seen in "Two Celts Painted by a Celt," in which we find celts--prehistoric tools, fashioned with ritualistic heads on their handles--as painted by the artist, of Celtic heritage.
"The Turkey and the Fire God" and "The Eclipse" stem directly from the observation of symbolic designs, a merging of Catholic and indigenous iconography in the former, and the sun enfolded in the moon in the latter.
A more forceful design-based painting commands attention on the gallery's far wall. "Cosmic Spider and the Divine Preparation" is a dynamic yellow-and-black symbol, writ large, with an integrated metaphorical symmetry that echoes Mayan design aesthetics and yin-yang duality.
One gets the sense, touring the world created through Kelly's curious mind, focused eclecticism and active brush, that the artist is shuffling through the bank of influences he has accrued, in search of self. After the viewer absorbs and assimilates the reference points, it's an enticing realm of the artist's own devising.
Gallery Subplot: There's a running subplot at the Bagier Gallery, which has had a dramatic impact on Ojai's gallery scene since opening last November. Owner Robin Bagier is currently working on affirming and expanding the art-world reputation of his aunt, the noted Italian-Mexican artist Ely DeVescovi, whose bounty of work is rotated in a small gallery in the back of the space.
At present, several new pieces have been hung in this densely packed and quite impressive bunch of works, paintings with the heroic qualities that recall the touch of bold Mexican art of the early 20th century.
The painting "Narcissism" depicts a nude woman, all bulging contours and subtle exaggerations of form, viewing her visage reflected in a stream, half-admiring, half-alienated.
Her self-portrait as a young woman finds an artist peering into her own kind of stream, enraptured in her work and with wavy hair that seems to intersect with the flow of vegetation in yonder woods.
Tucked away in the gallery office is yet another moving painting, "Pieta," with forms of the grieving Madonna and the lifeless body of Jesus, marked with the stigmata.
The smeared, melting forms suggest the loose figuration of the Norwegian Edvard Munch's work. The DeVescovi saga continues.
Michael D.B. Kelly, through July 16 at Bagier Gallery, 453 E. Ojai Ave., Ojai. Noon-5 p.m., Thursday-Sunday; (805) 646-3500.