Important Australian + International Fine Art
24 April 2024


born 1965

oil on linen

74.5 x 54.5 cm

signed and dated lower right: Klly [sic] 94

$35,000 – $45,000

Niagara Galleries, Melbourne
Private collection, New South Wales, acquired from the above in 1994


Niagara Galleries at ACAF 4, Fourth Australian Contemporary Art Fair, Melbourne, 29 September – 2 October 1994

Catalogue text

Fusing intelligent social commentary with playful humour, reality with non-reality, John Kelly is recognised internationally as one of the most original artists of his generation. Widely acclaimed for his iconic theme of ‘the cows’ – exemplified here brilliantly by Man Lifting Cow, 1994 – Kelly completed a Masters of Arts at RMIT University in 1995, following which he was awarded the prestigious Anne and Gordon Samstag International Visual Arts Scholarship to further his studies as an Affiliate student at the Slade School in London. He has since regularly exhibited in the United Kingdom with Piccadilly Galleries, Agnew’s, and Merville Galleries, and his surrealist cow sculptures have been included in a number of major international exhibitions including the Champs de la Sculpture II (1999) on the Champs Elysées, Paris; La Parade des Animaux (2002) in Monte Carlo; the Musée d’Art Moderne de Contemporaine, Nice (2007); The Hague (2007); Glastonbury (2006 and 2007); and Cork City (2011). Closer to home, he is obviously known to local audiences through his beloved sculpture, Cow up a Tree, 2000, permanently situated on the Harbour Esplanade at the Docklands, Melbourne.

Occupying the vast majority of his oeuvre, Kelly’s whimsical cow interpretations were originally inspired by William Dobell’s creation of papier-mâché cows during World War II, deployed as camouflage around defence bases in a strategy intended to deceive enemy warcraft. As Dr McMahon recalls, ‘When World War II broke out, Bill [Dobell] served as a camouflage labourer, and later as an artist recording the work of the Civil Construction Corps which built airfields and other defence projects. As a camouflagist, he was one of several, later famous artists1, who had been ordered to make papier-mâché cows and move them around the base in the hope of fooling Japanese pilots. Said Bill, ‘I think the authorities underestimated the eyesight of Japanese airmen…’’2

Like many of his inaugural iterations upon the theme, in Man Lifting Cow Kelly explicitly references this bizarre episode as his source of inspiration – here evoking the mysterious workshop of Dobell’s airfield as his setting, complete with windsock blowing in the distance and bomber plane overhead, while an air force worker in blue overalls moves a (presumably) papier-mâché cow around the base. Significantly however, over time ‘Dobell’s cows’ would gradually morph to become ‘Kelly’s cows’, isolated from the original historical narrative and acquiring their own history and curious identity. Depicted as stacked, balanced, wheeled, propped on trestles, assembled sideways or upside down, indeed these later interpretations would be notably bereft of any hint of wartime tragedy, despair or bleakness. To the contrary, such works became ‘humorous forays into the artist’s inventiveness… poignantly quizzical metaphors for aspects of Australian culture and colonial history, or even enigmatic signifiers of art’s shifting purposes and the puzzling scenarios in which it finds itself.’3 As the artist himself elucidates, ‘My intention is to create work that encapsulates the concepts and ideas that intrigue me. I take historical subjects such as Dobell’s cows… and my own personal experience to build a framework within which I can create my own vision of things. Within this, I pursue a multi-layered research of imagery of concepts and ideas, both visual and intellectual… to generate paintings and sculptures that create their own history by engaging in the real world as works of art… I like to create works that reach beyond their absurdity to reflect something of my visual and intellectual environment. This is my intent.’4

1. Other celebrated Australian artists enlisted as camoufleurs included Arthur Boyd, Joshua Smith and Ivor Francis.  
2. McMahon, E., First Draft, Dobell Archives, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, see John Kelly, Cow up a Tree, Niagara Galleries, Melbourne, 1999, p. 12
3. Hammond, V., ‘Cow Up a Tree / Sculpture’ at (accessed February 2024)
4. Kelly, cited in John Kelly, Cow up a Tree, op. cit.