David Kelley showed a bunch of small paintings at Anthony Greaney on Harrison Avenue in the South End last month that I haven't been able to get out of my mind. The show's come down, but the works are still there, and if you go to the gallery I'm told you can ask to see them. For a long time, Kelley, who teaches at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, has been playing with empty speech bubbles, colored shapes made from pixel-like dots, and a cartoon-like visual syntax of three-dimensional lettering, construction sites, banners, ladders, and illusory holes, placed in various combinations on an empty white ground. (He paints, draws, and plays around with basic CAD software).
The recent paintings, wittily called "Cartooshes," take the idea of the cartouche - essentially an elaborate oval-shaped frame setting off nothing (the frame, not the thing it frames, is the point) - and gives them a hypnotic, mesmerizing optical zing.
Kelley is hypersensitive both to color and to what happens at the edges of things. Here, the pure white ground of each picture is ringed by bright, overlapping colors which swell out, like lapping waves, from beneath a tumescent gray frame, suggestive of cartoon speech bubbles or clouds. The emptiness at the core of each painting - a throwback to Kelley's speech bubbles - is spiritually bracing, the more so because of the jazzy interplay of brilliant colors at the edges. Various conceptual games are at work; unusually, however, the ideas actually inhere in the paintings themselves; they're not pasted on afterwards. Kelley is continuing the series (I asked to see the latest in his studio) and pushing it in subtle but fertile new directions. As much as the early works in the series, these new ones vibrate with pleasure and wit.