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As Kelly Best's solo show Vanishing Point, at Oriel Davies, Newtown, Powys, draws to a close, Trevor H Smith sends us his review, an experience of twists and shifts of view and perception, and of a beguling mixture of simplicity and complexity in both media and dimension.

Working with watercolours, oils, and steel, Kelly Best juxtaposes chaos and order, and reframes the physical space at Oriel Davies with a collection of new and recent work that draws an architectural line through drawing, painting, and sculpture.

Gallery One is partitioned by Frame, a wall of A4 red, blue, and black watercolour paintings hung in a grid formation. Each painting depicts a zigzag pattern, and the overall effect is of a curtain or veil that intersects the space. Its titular frame in the centre, forms a doorway of sorts, through which the viewer may look, or pass to the other side of the room. Frame’s obstructive aspect is reflected on a smaller scale in a nearby cluster of nine untitled watercolour paintings, each of which features a partially obscured repetitious pattern of its own. These paintings feel loose, almost like preparatory sketches for something more self-conscious like Flux - a painting whose first hint of status comes in being titled at all, being alongside so many untitled works. Painted in oil on board and much larger than the clustered watercolours, Flux’s sweeping bright red strokes are overlaid with a much darker red that diagonally bisects the canvas. The work’s seriousness hints at a gradual imposition of order over a freer form of mark-making, something that is given greater significance to as the exhibition unfolds.

Four further paintings demonstrate the physicality of oils by using the medium to create and obfuscate pattern; catching the light through the '60's slit windows of the gallery space, the paintings' markings appear to sway and shift across their surfaces. This illusion of movement is also seen in the first of Best’s paired steel rod sculptures. At first sight, these sensitively-fashioned, angular forms could almost be mistaken for drawings as well, ones that have been applied directly to the gallery walls. However, on further inspection, shadows become apparent, and, mounted on adjoining walls, the structures appear to shift counter-intuitively against the viewer's gaze, bending in all the wrong places. Each marks out a space and bisects it, forming two irregular quadrilaterals that emerge from the wall unexpectedly, rectangular shapes collapsing into triangles, and parallel lines abutting upon one another to form a heavier boundary. Step back and the structures become quiet drawings once more.

In Gallery Two, a group of five oil paintings demonstrates a more rigid use of line work, rendering them more closer conceptually, to Best’s steel rod sculptures than to the other paintings in the show. Across the room, two large scale drawings, presented under a single title, feature monochrome pencil work on a white background. The picture plane is dissected, leaving solid geometric shapes linked by eight parallel lines; it is as though the sculptures in Gallery One have been folded away and collapsed onto, or even into, the canvas. Beneath the work, a trace of pencil dust lines the floor; these drawings were made in situ, one with a pencil and ruler, the other an attempted freehand copy.

The overwhelming presence in Gallery Two, however, is a second pair of steel rod sculptures. Contrasting with the works in the first room, whose fine rods looked like line-drawings trying to escape the wall, these two are constructed of seven parallel bars, each an inch or more in diameter. These structures are wall-mounted but they also sit on the floor; they lean at seemingly impossible angles as their frameworks encroach several feet into the room, creating an aperture through which the temptation to leap is almost too much. These heavier rods are, put simply, rougher around the edges. Welding spots and scorch marks line the seams of each bend, and they are less polished overall, than their more lightweight counterparts in Gallery One, though their sensitivity is no less evident.

Throughout Vanishing Point, Kelly Best wrong-foots her audience, as her sculptures and paintings behave unexpectedly; some catch light to create new works while others bend unpredictably, creating new relationships between the perimeters and inner spaces of the gallery spaces. Best has said that she sometimes imposes arbitrary rules on herself to steer the work, restricting her palette, for example, or drawing with a ruler then copying that drawing freehand. These rules may also be keeping Best herself in check; what might she create with sixteen colours, or without geometric restrictions? That is a question that is tantalisingly touched on in the show’s final group of paintings; this cluster of watercolours shows clearly Best's lightness of touch through non-linear patterning, and further hints at a sense of depth that brings to mind another kind of structure altogether, one not present in this exhibition. It is as though after imposing all of this order in the earlier work - loose patterns blacked out and overlaid, sketches in mild steel, rigid patterning and large scale parallel-line sculptures - Best has allowed herself a freer hand, returning almost full circle to the playfulness of the first repetitions seen partially blotted in Gallery One.

The narrative has been laid out by curatorial hand, and has the effect of imposing a hierarchical order on the work shown: very slight steel rod structures; works on paper (untitled and hung by a bulldog clip from a single nail in the wall); oils on board (some titled and bearing more detailed pattern); sculptures, much larger in scale, which dominate the second gallery. One could even be forgiven for reading the watercolour paintings as drawings on their way to becoming oils, themselves functioning as preparatory drawings for the steel rod sculptures; but to assume that the sculptures are the work would be vastly to underplay the importance of the paintings.

On leaving the gallery spaces, it becomes apparent that the inclusion and importance of the arch-like piece Frame is pivotal. It is Vanishing Point’s biggest and most imposing piece; it is the first and last thing viewed; and it serves to pull together yet further, the various strands of Best's practice. While the knowledge that Best sets rules by which to make her work, and the various mediums and materials she uses imply stratified sequence in this show, it is only on passing for a second time that it becomes obvious Best has constructed the enormous Frame out of hundreds of her smaller, watercolour paintings. The flux, movement and shift between Best's different media take on a much greater significance and resilience; any percieved linearity or heirachy recedes. A parting shot perhaps, that rules, even when we set them ourselves, are worth breaking.

Trevor H. Smith

Text commissioned with support from Arts Council Wales

(Photos: John Fallon)


Kelly Best, Vanishing Point, was at Oriel Davies 11 March - 10 May 2017