The Escape from the Frame
Richard Killeen's Cut-Outs


Killeen is the most formally inventive of the young painters in New Zealand. And among his diverse works and qualities, a constant is wit. The Oxford Dictionary gives a definition of wit (definition 8) as that quality which consists in the apt association of thought and expression, calculated to surprise by its very unexpectedness. What could have been more unexpected, for an audience accustomed to his triangulated grids, than Killeen's cutouts - or be more unexpected than the curious conjunctions of image within them? Wit implies, as well as the pleasures of the unexpected, a certain stress on form, so that the actual form of its language may count as much as its content. As Webster's has it, wit is 'a quality akin to humour, but depending more on point or brilliancy of language'. In Killeen's case, it is the language of painting.

RICHARD KILLEEN Dog Without a Frame May 1972
Oil on chipboard, 1200 x 1200 mm.

Among the games of surprise Killeen has played with the language of painting have been those with the frame. They come, in the cut-outs, to the most astonishing of all: the frame's abandonment; the abandoning of all - and it is a lot - that the frame implies. (Here, and throughout this writing, the word 'frame' is used both in its ordinary sense, and in the sense of the rectangular edge of a painting.)

To see just what Killeen is doing with pictorial form in the cut-outs, and justly to see how radical the implications are of the frame's abandonment, we must first consider what the frame has traditionally meant to painting. Understanding this, we may simultaneously glimpse some of the things Killeen did, before the cut. outs, with the frame's traditional meanings.

In the first place, the frame is a familiar sign of depictivity, a sign that we are seeing, not the world, but a depiction of the world.

The frame gives on to the world, while at the same time it closes the depiction off from the world, for the world is not framed, nor are things in it. In Killeen's Dog Without a Frame, though - one of group of works in 1971 which experimented with the frame - we see once a reference to the frame as a traditional sign of depiction; and one of Killeen's earliest attempts to abet his subject's escape from the frame's enclosure. Though a frame is present, it is within the painting, and the dog without the frame. Without ... outside the frame / not having a frame / free of the frame. Here, as often, Killeen's wit is both verbal and visual; its form and content inextricably one.

It was so taken for granted in Killeen's hard-edge realist works from 1965 to 1968, as it was in all traditional European painting, that the frame was a sign of a reality other than the world's, that it signified 'picture', that when a picture had to be signified in a picture, the sign of the frame was sufficient. Even where the style of the picture in the picture differed in no way from the style of the picture as a whole, the fact it was framed was enough to show its reality was other. And even today, it is still so taken for granted that the frame signifies 'picture' that I have heard it said of the cut-outs (from which the frame is banished forever) that Killeen isn't really a painter at all - but a sculptor.

RICHARD KILLEEN Three Spikes May 1974
Oil and acrylic on canvas, 1730 x 1090 mm.

In Killeen's realist period, he liked to put pictures in pictures: but he was always careful to frame the picture in the picture off from the rest - whether it was a reflection of a landscape framed in a pair of sunglasses, or framed in a windowpane (nature's own pictures of itself), or a print of a painting framed by its own white border. Then, in 1969, Killeen moved on to paintings combining 'abstract' colour patches and 'figurative' images in which there was no effort to distinguish between levels of reality at all, least of all by framing them off from one another, but rather a desire to confuse them, so the only reality confirmed was that of painting. But in whatever he did before the cut-outs there was the same old rectangular format, dictated by the frame, that same old sign of depiction.

You're saying this is a painting.
(Killeen, talking of the frame.)(1)

The second function of the frame is this: it stresses the painting as a material thing, rather than as a representation.

One does not frame in ornate and cumbrous gold a 'view'; one may only ornament a 'thing'. Killeen was stressing just this traditional 'thingness' when, in 1971 and 1972, he stuck things all over his frames-words, images, blocks of wood, a piece of tree. And when, in Dog Without a Frame, he stuck the frame within the painting, so the materiality of its surface was stressed. The traditional altarpiece too was divided within by its frames. What we see, with the altarpiece and Killeen, is a number of pictures presented as one cumulate and elaborate 'thing'. If at this stage of his development Killeen makes a witty point of the frame, he does nothing essentially new with it. For that, we have to wait for the cut-outs.

Traditionally, even where a frame was not technically necessary or useful (as in fresco or manuscript painting) it was represented in paint. Frame and frame, then, were seen to be nothing but paint. The same is so of many of Killeen's works of 1971 with painted frames or borders, where sometimes there is more painted frame than there is painting within it. For example: From Here to the World, November, 1971. Again, in these works, Killeen made a witty point of the frame: but not yet anything essentially new of it. For that, we have to wait for the cut-outs.

The third function of the frame is that it determines the composition of the framed.

It is this composing function that Killeen most wanted to escape, and did finally escape, in the cut-outs.

RICHARD KILLEEN Across the Pacific August 1978
Lacquer on aluminium, eight pieces,
installed dimensions approximately
1200 x 1200 mm.

The frame tends to impose an invisible grid of horizontals and verticals on the painting and so determine how and where the depicted forms are placed. Images tend to be placed on the horizontals and verticals, so those of the frame are affirmed. What is central becomes most important. Everything at the sides faces into it. Sides and centre are determined by the frame. Hierarchical composition is likely to result-some things being important, some things less so. And composition, especially hierarchical composition, is what Killeen most sought to escape in the cut-outs.

Composition may largely be determined by the frame, but the artist sometimes contrives that it should not seem so. Figures maybe cropped by the frame, to suggest an unordered world continuous beyond it, or to suggest disorder in the depicted world. Killeen did some startling croppings in such early works as Man and a Woman, May 1969, where the profile of the man, which occupies almost all the left side of the picture, is sliced in half by the frame.

Such cropping, though used in the Renaissance, is usually celebrated as an invention of the Impressionists, and regarded, as the word itself suggests, as due to the influence of photography (or of Japanese prints, which also use it). The Impressionist version is called 'a slice of life', and is said to imply an advance in naturalism, a greater spontaneity of vision. Yet we do not see life sliced at its edges. The eye dances, sees neither edge nor end. Killeen refers us back to this convention of cropping, once, in the cut-outs. In Potter Wasp (April 1979), one of seven otherwise 'complete' elements of the cut-out is a lobster, half cropped with what Killeen calls 'an invisible stopping-like a frame' .(2) Having escaped the frame in the cut-outs, perhaps it amused Killeen, just this once, to look back to it, and to traditional tricks of trying to deny its restrictions. For cropping (as Killeen's chopped lobster showed clearly) is but a pictorial convention, serving to suggest, in its most severe elisions, a severance in the normal order of things; or, more usually, to suggest an unordered (that is, un-represented) world beyond another pictorial convention, that of the frame.

The unordered (that is, un-represented) world outside the frame: that is what Killeen's cut-outs have joined. For in the cut-outs, all three traditional functions of the frame are denied, or made irrelevant; and new freedoms are gained.

The first function of the frame, I have said, is as a sign of depictivity - a sign we see not the world, but a depiction of the world. The frame closes the painting off from the world. in abandoning the frame Killeen signifies his cut-outs as objects in the world, not depictions of it. And that, formally, is what twentieth century painting has been all about: making a painting as much a thing as a picture.

The second function of the frame that it serves to stress the materiality rather than the representational quality of the painting - is at once made irrelevant (the cut-outs are already, in the absence of the frame, material objects in the world, not depictions of it) and met in other ways (the cut-outs are clearly flat, material forms, with a flat, material layer of lacquer upon them).

The third function of the frame - that it determines the composition of the framed-is denied: the separate elements of the painting are now free, uncomposed - what composition can be made of these elements (of which none looks more important than another) is left to the person who hangs them.

This is an astonishing move: an astonishing freedom! Wit ... calculated to surprise by its very unexpectedness. The cut-outs were unexpected. But now they are done, we can see their precursors in Killeen's earlier work. As he says himself: 'The things I'm doing now go back ten years. I've tried the ideas before, but never so well or so successfully'.(3)

First, there are the earlier games we've seen with the frame, and his attempts to deny, by cropping, its composing effects. There was, all along, a consciousness of the frame and its meanings.

RICHARD KILLEEN Continental Drift (yellow) April 1981
Alkyd on aluminium, twenty pieces, approximately 2200 x 2200 mm.

Second, Killeen has always had a tendency to place flat images against flat grounds. In his hard-edge realist works of the 'sixties, flattened figures were often depicted against an interior or exterior wall parallel to the picture plane. In the cut-outs, real objects against real walls; in the early realist works, depicted objects against depicted walls: but the jump from one to the other was not one that Killeen could immediately make.

For a start, the realist works got flatter and flatter, and figurative forms were combined with 'abstract' patches of colour. In 1972 and 1973 Killeen did two shows where images, 'figurative' and 'abstract' mixed, floated on pale, painted and sanded grounds. The grounds got whiter and whiter, more wall-like. Killeen suggests he began this series with a 'dirty board-testing'; then came 'contrived dirty boards'; then 'there seemed less and less reason to dirty the board'.(4)

So came the comb series, in which the combs were tilted against white acrylic-on-canvas grounds. That the combs were tilted made them seem 'things', floating across the canvas, not part of it. Killeen explains: 'The image was made up in a stencil quite separate from the canvas, then added. That's why they tilt'. Now, and this is especially significant from the viewpoint of the cut-outs to come, Killeen says: 'The combs were done on canvas unstretched. I thought of the canvas as the wall. I even thought of stencilling some directly on the wall, but I didn't because it wasn't practical'.(5) Presumably, dealers can't sell a wall. But Killeen was very close to the cut-outs, just then.

The next time he came so close was in the series of bird, beast, insect and fish forms stencilled on ply and aluminium, but not exhibited, in 1977. Here, both the technique of putting flat images on flat grounds, and the images themselves, come close, very close to the cut-outs. They were close in image: bird, beast, insect, fish. They were close in technique: a stencil, of course, is cut out. Like the cut-outs, as Killeen says,'it makes the images movable, like a stamp'.(6) And like the cut-outs, there was the aluminium ground.

Then came 'non-figurative' triangulated grids. After them the cut outs-the first, Across the Pacific in August 1978. And nothing could be flatter than these pieces of aluminium sheet tacked to the wall.

The third quality in Killeen's earlier work to anticipate the cut-outs is this: a constant tendency to place separate elements together in a way that looks relatively uncomposed.

RICHARD KILLEEN Dreamtime June 1980
Lacquer on aluminium, twenty-seven pieces, installed dimensions approximately 3000 x 3000 mm.

At first this tendency was unconscious; later, very conscious. Already, in the 'sixties McCahon had remarked of the paintings Killeen did at art school that they were a lot of separate pieces put together-cloud, man, headland etc. This separability, this relative randomness, was unwitting perhaps in the realist works. By 1970 it was certainly the purpose and product of wit (wit, Oxford Dictionary definition 1: the seat of consciousness or thought). For, in a major work of 1970, One Foot Twelve Inches, (12 panels, 24 x 24 inches), the images are chosen and placed with the absolute randomness of chance. To allow chance to play, Killeen put thirty-six images on cards, and 'chose' twelve images per panel by shuffling and dealing. Their placing on numbered squares on the panel was determined by rolling a dice. So, the which and where of the images was chosen by chance, in a set-up consciously contrived by Killeen to allow chance to play, that conscious composition might consciously be avoided.

If, in the later works done before the cut-outs, chance was seldom given again such a chance, Killeen's images often looked randomly chosen and scattered on the grounds that supported them. This is true of the 'figurative' and 'abstract' images mixed on sanded paint grounds, shown in 1972 and 1973; of the stencilled 'figurative' images on aluminium and ply in 1977; and even some of the 'non-figurative' grids had 'figurative' images scattered across them - like Frogshooter ' winner of the Benson & Hedges award, 1976.

The fourth quality, culminating in the cut-outs, is this: the mixing of 'figurative' and 'abstract' elements. (Killeen has moved from one series to another: jumped within one series, within one work, from figurative to abstract - so the critics have said.)

In Killeen's works of the 'sixties 'figurative' works, 'abstract' paintings, might be framed off on a background wall (a Clifford Still), and figurative elements abstractly treated (a cupboard looks like a Robyn Denny); later the mixture might be uneasy, or Killeen stick resolutely to one or the other. But only in the cut-outs do the two come truly together, seem like one thing.

I've tried to work out a style that will let me do the abstract and pictorial things at once. I've always had this trouble with pictorial things in that the elements are not integrated into the painting.(7)

In the cut-outs they are.

Let us consider some definitions, relating them to Killeen's cut-outs.

Figure. 1. (n.) External form; bodily shape, woman's bust; (geom.) space enclosed by line(s) or surface(s); image; statue or picture of human form; emblem; type; diagram; illustration; decorative pattern. 2. (v.) Represent in diagram or picture; picture mentally; be a symbol of. (The Pocket Oxford Dictionary)
(n.) Killeen's cut-outs are all these things but the bust: they are at once external forms in the world, (geom.) spaces enclosed by line(s) and surface(s), and images of things; they are type, emblem, diagram, illustration; they are wonderfully decorative patterns.
(v.) They represent in diagram or picture; they picture mentally; symbolise things in the world, things in the mind.
Abstract. 1. (adj.) Separated from matter or practice or particular example, not concrete; ideal, theoretical. 2. (n.) Essence, summary. 3. (v.) Deduct, take away, summarize. (The Pocket Oxford Dictionary)

Killeen's cut-outs are art, flat images on a gallery wall: in that sense separate from the world of matter and practice; they are not particular examples-either of a tank or a triangle; they are images of an ideal tank or triangle, their essence, their summary. They are tank or triangle as in a dictionary, not 'that particular tank or triangle which. . .' (v.) They deduct from a tank, a triangle, a gull, its light and space; they take Sway; they summarize; they attempt to be the tank, the triangle, the gull, or rather, the image of them, in the mind/on the wall.

RICHARD KILLEEN Black Insects, Red Primitives November 1980
Lacquer on aluminium, nineteen pieces, installed dimensions approximately 3000 x 3000 mm.

Duchamp once said that one day abstract and figurative won't look any different. Looking at Killeen's cut-outs, we can now see what he meant.

Is there just reason for the image Killeen selects for each assemblage, each cut-out?  Is there a reason of form, or a reason of content? Might the title sometimes, as with Duality, be a clue?

There is a clear reason for the title and the association of images in Black Crawlers, all black insects. Or in Scream, a drawing for a cut-out, where birds wheel and dive, where everything spins. In Black Insects and Primitives, primitive pattern and insect have the same spikiness. Three Mammals has three, and one fish, and five clubs-all long thin things, all to be horizontally hung. Wish you were Here, words of a postcard cliché, has a camel - a postcard from Arabia, maybe?

Kilieen associates images for reasons both of form and content-sometimes more for reasons of form, sometimes more for reasons of content. If insects and primitive pattern seems an extravagant mix of ideas, the mix of their images does not. In Black Insects and Primitives it looks right - even 'natural' - now it's done. Don't be afraid of things you don't understand has black insects and red triangles, and Living and Dying red triangles and black moths - somewhat ominous titles, ominous colours and creatures. For Don't be afraid of things you don't understand and Strontium 90, there is a stipulation the elements be hung touching, 'to make them more intense', Killeen says.(8) Dreamtime, July, 1980, has dark, night-like colours, and organic shapes, many drooping softly down. Dreamtime, June, 1980, dreams of night and Australian aboriginals in more than its title and colours - there is a lizard, a boomerang, and a bat. Welcome to the South Seas (Victoria University Collection) even has Cook's Endeavour.

But sometimes the title is just 'a song on the radio at the time'. So perhaps we should not be too literal about titles. It may be best to regard them, as Duchamp did, as 'another colour added to the painting'.

RICHARD KILLEEN Dualism April 1980 
Lacquer on aluminium, eight pieces, installed dimensions approximately 2130 x 2130 mm.

Wit . . . calculated to surprise by its very unexpectedness. A last question of Killeen: what will he do next with the cut-outs? Answer: attempt an escape from the Oxford's definition of Wit (5b): Practical talent or cleverness, mechanical ability; ingenuity, skill. Obs. as a specific sense. Perhaps the earlier cut-outs too fully, in Spenser's words, 'spake the praises of the workman's wit'. They certainly did not look home-made. As Michael Dunn wrote in 1978 of Killeen's paint, it was 'distinctly removed from the associations of hand-made or crafted constructions of an older generation of painters'.(9) But the cut-outs to be shown next are a bit jagged at the edges, appear to be cut, and aren't neatly painted, but brushworky, baroque, hand-done. No one can predict Killeen.

Wit. (The Oxford Dictionary, definition 4): The understanding or mental faculties in respect of their condition: chiefly = 'right mind', 'reason', 'sense', ,sanity'.

At last a happy, normal painting, April, 1978: that title was cited by Dunn as evidence that 'Killeen paints positively'.(10) It was perhaps, too, a tease against what has been called 'the angst school' of New Zealand painting. Killeen has a different vision of the world. For both the imagery of the cut-outs, and the way they are put together-the democracy of composition, the freedom they grant us-do imply a vision of the world.

RICHARD KILLEEN One Foot Twelve Inches 1970
Oil on hardboard, 1200 x 3600 mm.

1 .Statement by Kilteen, quoted page 126 Contemporary New Zealand Painters, Vol. I A-M, text by Jim and Mary Barr, Alister Taylor.
2. Statement by Killeen to the writer.
3. Statement by Killeen, quoted page 120, Contemporary New Zealand Painters.
4. Statement by Killeen to the writer.
5. Statement by Killeen to the writer.
6. Statement by Killeen to Martin Rumsby: Typescript of an interview for a film on Killeen.
7. Statement by Killeen quoted page 122, Contemporary New Zealand Painters.
8. Statement by Killeen to the writer.
9. Michael Dunn, Art New Zealand 10, 1978.
10. Michael Dunn, Art New Zealand 10, 1978.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 20 Winter 1981