Rose Finn-Kelcey obituary
Rose Finn-Kelcey, who has died aged 68 from motor neurone disease, was one of the most imaginative and inventive artists of her generation. No two works of hers are physically alike; each represents a fresh challenge, often to attempt the seemingly impossible – for example, to build a machine that would produce a perfect cube of mist floating in the gallery air, as in Steam Installation at the Chisenhale Gallery in east London (1992). An acute blend of ironic humour and deep seriousness informed her work, whether it was a performance, a gallery installation or a public commission.
Finn-Kelcey belonged to the generation that was caught up in the feminism of the 1960s and 70s, and she set out to find her individual voice, both as an artist and a woman. In an early work, Song Sheet (1977), she appropriated English, French and Welsh phonetic translations of the 17 cries of the magpie and vocalised them as part of a performance called Her Mistress’s Voice. Her socio-political aims were combined with avant-garde experimentation, which centred on the belief that a work of art could be made of anything.
One of Finn-Kelcey’s best-known works, Bureau de Change (1987), illustrates this process perfectly. At a time when she was restricted, as the result of a knee injury, to easily available materials, she saw on the news the announcement of the sale of Van Gogh’s painting Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers (1888) to the Yasuda Insurance Company of Japan for £22.5m. The powerful desire to respond critically fused with the idea of combining the coins and the painting. Finn-Kelcey made brilliant use of the colour variations of the loose change, new and old, as they corresponded with Van Gogh’s palette.
The result was an exemplary “political” work, an argument in the form of an object. No words are necessary. Meaning resides in the utterly convincing transubstantiation of oil painting into money. Finn‑Kelcey’s installation sums up with wit and precision the duality of the place of art in our culture. At the same time the transformation the piece brings about has a strange beauty and could be taken as an unexpected tribute to Van Gogh’s creativity.
Finn-Kelcey had a rural upbringing in Buckinghamshire, as part of a large, old‑fashioned, conservative farming family. She showed early talent as an artist, attending Ravensbourne College of Art and Design and later Chelsea College of Art in London. She quickly gravitated towards avant-garde ideas, both in art and politics.
Yet, for Finn-Kelcey, feminist empowerment did not preclude the feelings of vulnerability and lack of confidence to which everyone is prone. In Book and Pillow (1978), she imagined the unimpressive side of herself as a “small being” that continuously disrupted and manipulated her life. She commissioned a model-maker at the Natural History Museum to create an effigy of this being from her written descriptions. The result was a tiny homunculus, which Finn-Kelcey then mounted in a Perspex “book” lying on a pillow with a magnifying glass next to it. As you peered at the imp through the magnifying glass you leaned against the pillow, which activated the irritating sound of a fly buzzing about the room.
Finn-Kelcey was one of the few contemporary artists to tackle the issue of religion in their art. Many of her recent works explored this theme, among them God Kennel – A Tabernacle (1992); Pearly Gate, Souls and Jolly God (all 1997); God’s Bog (2001); and It Pays to Pray (1999), a work in which contemporary “prayers” were available from chocolate-vending machines mounted outside the Millennium Dome.
What can God mean today? What is the spiritual in contemporary society, and where can it be found? Finn-Kelcey responded to such questions with a complex mixture of reverence and satire, debunking and venerating, in ways that have lost none of their capacity to surprise.
Finn-Kelcey fell ill just after the publication of a comprehensive book on her work, Rose Finn-Kelcey (2013). Such a guide was badly needed, not least because many of her works were ephemeral. She was a wonderful artist and a great person. Although punctilious in every detail of her performances and installations, Finn-Kelcey did not project an intrusive ego. She had many friends and was attentive to the well-being of each one. Of herself she said: “I work in the belief – or dare – that I can continue to reinvent myself and remain a perennial beginner.”
Rose Finn-Kelcey, artist, born 4 March 1945; died 13 February 2014