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Rose Finn Kelcey: Life, Belief and Beyond

Rose Finn Kelcey: Life, Belief and Beyond

6 August 2017 | Günseli Yalcinkaya

On March 30, 1987, Van Gogh’s painting, Still Life: Vase with 15 Sunflowers was sold by auction house Christie’s in London for £24.75 million: a price that tripled previous records, breaking newspaper headlines across the globe. The age of excess was in full swing: art did not exist for art’s sake, but as commodity.

Later that year, British avant-garde artist Rose Finn-Kelcey responded by making Bureau de Change, a replica of Van Gough’s painting, made using a range of coins.  The installation, which has since become one of the artist’s best-known works, needs no supporting statement.  Art is money, it says.
 
Glistening against the gallery lights, a recreation of Kelcey’s standout piece greets visitors in the opening gallery at Modern Art Oxford.  It is this combination of deep seriousness and an understanding of the value of irony that dominates the majority of Kelcey’s works. 


Image credits: Sue Ormerod

There is, however, an aspect of generosity to Finn-Kelcey’s work too.  “She has a sense of humour in the way that she approaches the world," explains exhibition curator Stephanie Straine.  "She was really interested in the idea that when you experience her artwork, it would not necessarily be in a gallery, but on the street, and you wouldn’t know it was coming.  The unexpected encounter was important to her".
 
In another piece, titled It Pays to Pray, Kelcey creates a vending machine that offers prayers, all themed around chocolate brands - Bounty, Delight, Ripple - for a refundable 20p.  “People were delighted by the idea that, in the end, it doesn’t cost you anything to receive a prayer”, says Straine.  “She was interested in the idea of what it meant to locate the spiritual in the everyday”.


Image credits: Courtesy the Estate of Rose Finn-Kelcey

Finn Kelcey belonged to a pocket of art that was influenced by the political fervour of the 1960s and 1970s. “She was interested in tracking the kind of difficult bureaucratic nightmare that would often arise when she was trying to put an artwork in a public space, and the negotiations with an electricity board, or a church - all of the difficulties became part of the artwork in a sense”.
 
A desire to find a voice was met with avant-garde experimentation, and not long after, Finn-Kelcey joined the ranks as one of the generation’s most celebrated conceptualists, alongside Susan Hiller and Richard Long. “When you look at how she negotiated all these different systems of power, you can see a relationship between her work, how she interacted with different forms of injustice, and the grassroots activism we’re seeing today,” says Straine, “she was really interested in the powers of dissent in public space”.


Image credits: Courtesy the Estate of Rose Finn-Kelcey


This attraction towards dissent carried through into the artist’s personal and political beliefs.  A fighting member of the Woman’s Artist Collective in London and the Woman Artist Library, Finn-Kelcey took seriously the idea that to be an artist meant to be an agent for change in the artistic community. “You can imagine how difficult it must have been to be a performance artist and not just a painter,” Straine begins, “the range of structural barriers to making a successful career were vast.  She played a big role in all these organisations and played a very influential role as a teacher to the next generation of artists”.
 
“It is interesting to look at her work through the lens of feminism, but she didn’t want to reduce her work to a one-line statement.  She was more interested in the idea that it influenced her work from a background position.  She really probed ideas around gender, identity and ego, and what it means to have a female identity, or a masculine one.”
 
In the performance Bull’s Eye, Finn-Kelcey dresses as both a flamenco dancer and a matador.  “She’s looking at that great connection - identifying a role between lies between masculine and feminine, and what that means”.


Image credits: Courtesy the Estate of Rose Finn-Kelcey

This is the first time a retrospective has been done of Finn-Kelcey’s work, who passed away form motor neurone disease in 2014.  “When she was alive, she always made new work for every exhibition,” explains Straine.  Interestingly, it was in Modern Art Oxford that Finn-Kelcey first exhibited her work. A graduate from the prestigious Chelsea College of Art, Finn-Kelcey displayed a collection of paintings that, although very different from her future works, would set the foundations for a lifetime of experimentation. “I like the idea that her first mature show as an artist out of college was in the same place that now hosts her retrospective”.

'Rose Finn Kelcey: Life, Belief and Beyond' can be seen at Modern Art Oxford between 15 July - 15 October 2017.
 

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