Polish Passion

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Gallery Owner Brings Creative Energy of Warsaw to U Street

Nevin Kelly, a former full-time partner at the Washington-based law firm Hogan & Hartson, used to think of himself as a recovering lawyer. But today he has a new identity. “I’ve actually begun to identify myself as a gallery owner,” he quipped over coffee at Love Café, a few doors down from his contemporary art gallery at 1517 U St., NW.

The Nevin Kelly Gallery opened its doors in late spring 2003 in the basement space of a narrow three-floor building that originally housed several apartments. Atypical for a basement, large windows fill the exhibition space with light and allow pedestrians a peek at the work of 20 contemporary artists, half of whom reside in Poland.

“When I saw that space, it reminded me of my early days in Warsaw,” Kelly recalled. “In 1993, Warsaw was a drab city, but artists have newfound freedom of expression and energy. There’s an explosion of color and expression of emotional content. We took a pretty shabby space at the time [I leased it] and without a whole lot of effort, we really kind of dressed it up.”

The events of Sept. 11, 2001, crystallized much of Kelly’s thinking about whether he wanted to try a new career. One year later in 2002, he retired from Hogan & Hartson, where he had been a full-time partner for 10 years. But it was his legal work in commercial real estate finance that set Kelly on the course to a new identity. The firm had an office in Warsaw, and Kelly was sent there in 1993 for what was expected to be a short-term project. Before he knew it, he was spending two weeks a month in the Polish capital.

Kelly opened his gallery with pieces from six Polish artists whose work he started collecting in 1993. He knew the artists’ agents and that the artists were eager for U.S. representation. Kelly observed that the gallery’s Polish collection represents a broad range of styles, but all of the pieces are quite structured and compositional. In his view, the Polish artists’ academic training and discipline are what make their paintings so appealing.

“A bad painting gets boring very quickly even though it may look good at first. I tend to go for paintings that you want to look at again and again,” he explained. “When I turn an artist away—as painful as that is—it’s generally because I don’t see the structure. Even if the artist is technically talented, even if the artist has really good ideas, if the balance and energy aren’t there, if the composition isn’t there to hold your interest, it gets flat.”

Although the gallery is entirely contemporary, none of the works in the Polish collection are abstract. In fact, they are quite romantic and humanistic. From Michal Zaborowski’s colorful, romantic paintings of everyday people such as musicians, maids, waiters and partygoers to the cityscapes of Edward Dwurnik to the relationship paintings of Mikolaj Kasprzyk to Krzysztof Kokoryn’s Picasso-like “Good Dog,” these works are about human activity and emotion. In another stunning painting, a semi-nude woman lies face down on one side of a bed covered with a brocade fabric that fills the entire canvas. And gallery goers looking for artistic statements about communist Poland will not be disappointed.

Kelly plans to continue his showings of Polish artists, but he also represents many local and American artists, some of whose work is abstract. One artist, for instance, uses encaustic wax paint in the tradition of Jasper Johns that she melts in muffin tins and then pours onto the canvas.

Regardless of style, the current 20 artists on display in Kelly’s gallery are tied together by Kelly’s self-described “bias.” He said he wants his gallery to always be known as reliable, with pieces on the wall that are consistently interesting and get people excited. He also noted that the tide is turning for the Washington art scene, as serious collectors in the nation’s capital realize they don’t have to leave the city and go to New York to buy good art.

For the month of January, the Nevin Kelly Gallery will have an “artists of the gallery” exhibit, displaying a work by each represented artist. The complete collection ranges in price from 0 to ,000, with a midpoint of ,000 to ,000. About 75 percent of the pieces are priced under ,000. The gallery holds openings for new exhibits in the autumn and spring.

Nevin Kelly Gallery 1517 U St., NW For more information, please call (202) 232-3464 or visit www.nevinkellygallery.com.

About the Author

Rachel Ray is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

Last Edited on April 7, 2011