Setting the stage
Jeffrey M. Kenney is an employee of Katie Gingrass Gallery, and even though his artist statement reads “Jeffrey M. Kenney,” you can just call him “Jeff.”
I saw two of his photographs recently when I stopped in to write a Shepherd Express review of an exhibition at Gingrass Gallery. They were not part of the show, but I ended up standing in front of them anyway. He handed me the March 2008 issue of Vital Source – he did the cover art – then he toured me through the gallery. You can view a broader sampling of his work when Urban Perspectives opens on May 2.
When I phoned him to set up an interview, he told me he’d just moved from Bremen Street to “more shrunken” third floor quarters in a majestic house on Humboldt. We agree to meet on a Monday, late in the afternoon – Mondays mean freedom for Jeff, and freedom means time to develop ideas in his new space. I warn him to not rush around and tidy up before my arrival. “I doubt if that’s even possible at this point,” he replies.
March 31: Rain with fog. I brace myself for a climb to the third floor. Jeff leads the way up the narrow stairs to his apartment. Plaster walls, elegant coved ceiling, deep window sills, original radiators, three rooms and a spacious bath, all recently updated with new appliances. The red light on the oven indicates it’s baking something – a miniature papier-mâché sculpture he intends to incorporate in his art.
Jeff is a twin (his brother is a musician living in Austin, Texas), born in Viroqua, Wisconsin on January 20, 1981 – the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration as President of the United States. He doesn’t have cable, so he haunts Peoples Bookstore and Riverwest Film & Video. He’s currently reading works by French writer Paul Virilio, who studies war and the speed of our current society. One of his favorite films is The Magician by George Melies, who shaped early cinema from the late 1890s through the 1920s. “They resemble one-minute magic tricks,” Jeff observes. Illusion interests this artist, who once had a summer job in the Dells as a videographer for a magician. “I also mowed his lawn,” he says. His father is a pilot and his mom is helping with an environmental clean-up at former site used to produce ammunition during the Second World War. If you’ve ever visited the fantastic acres of Dr. Evermore’s “Forevertron” sculptures near New Freedom, Wisconsin, it’s directly across the road.
He graduated from MIAD in 2003, with a BFA in Sculpture. Back then, he was just beginning to explore and develop his current arsenal of ideas. Before graduating, he studied at S.A.C.I. in Florence, Italy, and labored there as a teaching assistant.
We chat about the problems young artists encounter when trying to price their work for specific markets. I remind him that $50 seems to be the going price around here, and he laughs because he recently sold one of his pieces for exactly that amount. Then he adds, “I made my first big sale ($2,000) in 2007 when Gingrass included my work in the SOFA event in Chicago.” He’s applied twice (in 2004 and again in 2007) for the Mary Nohl Fellowship Fund, but was rejected. To date, his only exhibition space has been at Gingrass Gallery.
I remind him it’s time to check the baking papier-mâché. He brings it out on what appears to be a cookie sheet. The figure is tiny, maybe an inch high, and will find its place in the sculptures he constructs and then photographs in his studio at the southeast end of the apartment. It’s filled with “constructs” – hand-crafted houses, a faux wasp nest that morphs (in the final photograph) to a war-like dirigible, and a small black object resembling a Rube Goldberg machine or something sprung from the fantastic drawings of a mad scientist. His is a world rich with found objects, painted backgrounds, plaster casts, modeled clay and collaged cutouts, but the result is far more than miniature objects photographed. The illusion happens when they appear to be shot at real human scale. It’s an intricate process requiring an inquisitive mind free to roam into the realm where multiple disciplines meld.
Besides boosting color saturation in some of his photographs, he does not rely on digital effects to “set his stage.” Instead he sets up his miniatures in front of a device consisting of a mirror, projector lens and a magnifying glass, so as to give the scene “distance” from the digital camera. The addition of low lighting (perhaps from a flashlight and Christmas decorations) and a slow shutter speed complete a recipe for alchemy.
Perhaps during Urban Perspectives he will exhibit his sculptures in tandem with his photographs. I ask if he is a fan of filmmaker Matthew Barney. He isn’t, because “Barney’s materials are too precious, too slick.”
You may be thinking that Jeff’s work is just another bag of tricks – an arty dupe, a ho-hum scam. You’d be wrong. VS
Urban Perspectives opens at the Katie Gingrass Gallery on May 2. For more information and to see more of Jeff’s work, visit the Gingrass Gallery online.