Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Interview with Kenney Mencher

I’ve been a fan of Kenney Mencher since I first saw his work on the Hang Art Gallery Web site. While some of the work at Hang is the type you would expect to see at a gallery catering to the San Francisco loft-dweller demographic – placid landscapes and color fields – Kenney’s work was different. A sexy-looking gal cavorting in the bedroom with Scooby Doo, scenes from hard-boiled detective stories and lots of small moments and stolen glances. He’s a storyteller with a strain of darkness and a wicked sense of humor. What’s not to love?

If you drop in at his Web site every few weeks as I have over the past few years, you'll see the work of an artist who is contemporary and classical at the same time. His work is very much of the 21st Century but his themes and technique are timeless.

If you live in the Dallas / Fort Worth area or can get here between June 7 and July 1, Kenney’s work will be showing at the Dahlia Woods Fine Arts at 600 Cantegral Street in Dallas. He also has a solo show scheduled at the gallery for September. Kenney was kind enough to swap e-mails with me ahead of his Dallas shows. Please take a few minutes to learn more about him. I think you’ll be glad you did.

The Caravan of Dreams: Some your work involves nudity and sexual themes such as voyeurism and power. I suppose it shouldn't surprise that your work has been controversial. However, I live in Texas so I sort of expect that thing. How does your work get called too "wry and perverted" in San Francisco?

Kenney Mencher: One reason might be political. Some other artists who started showing at Hang showed some work that was similar to mine. These artists dealt with difficult themes, especially dealing with female and male sexual dynamics, however, since these artists were female painters I think the staff at Hang felt that these female’s artists’ work were feminist statements. I’m a man so I think that there was the perception that my work, even though it called attention to negative stereotypes, still was not really “feminist” in content. (Ed note: Click to see a larger version of "Apocrypha" from above. For other Not Safe For Work Images, click here, here and here.

Other reasons may be that I pushed the themes a bit too far and was too edgy for Hang as a venue. Hang was interested in representing emerging artists they were not a “cutting edge” gallery. Hang was not really interested in cultivating the counter culture or avante garde art scene or its collectors. Hang’s business model was to cater to educated upscale thirty something professionals who were interested in decorating an apartment. Decorative artwork sells much better than artwork that is designed to provoke thought or challenge the viewer. You would be amazed at how conservative this segment of the population in California and San Francisco is in general.

At the other end of the raunchy spectrum, there are some edgier galleries [ed warning: the links are NSFW] (The Shooting Gallery, Varnish, and 111 Minna to mention a few) who do show edgy provocative “outsider” and “visionary” work that is purposefully meant to provoke and titillate. My work is not considered edgy, cool, or really dirty enough in content to get me into one of those galleries. I also think that my style of rendering is too conservative for these venues. I’m a little stuck between two worlds.

TCoD: Do you intend your work to be provocative?
KM: Yes. I want it to be thought provoking but not necessarily titillating in an overtly erotic way.

TCoD: Do you ever get tired of answering questions about the Scooby Doo painting?
KM: I never actually answer those questions directly. I’m more interested in finding out what people think is going on in that painting. What do you think is going on in that painting?

TCoD: Another word I see in a lot of your reviews is ambiguous? Do you intend your themes to be ambiguous? Or do you have a theme or message you want to convey?
KM: The only thing I’m clearly trying to get my audience to do is laugh or be amused. Second on my agenda is to be deliberately ambiguous in that I don’t have a definite or clear story as to who the characters are or what they are doing in the painting.

TCoD: What are the themes that interest you as an artist?
KM: If I was to give myself a shopping list of themes or motifs each painting should address they are: interpersonal communication, sexual dynamics and roles, and story telling.

TCoD: Does your work get compared to John Currin?
KM: My friends do but the people who have reviewed my work in the newspapers don’t even seem to know who he is. I think he’s good but very different from me. He doesn’t seem to tell as much of a story as I do. He is doing some similar things in terms of the themes and motifs that I discussed before but he also varies a lot more in terms of formal things in his paintings. He purposefully awkwardly drafts the human figure. He also changes the way he applies paint from show to show. I actually think I have more in common with Eric Fischl.

TCoD: In your earlier work, your brushwork was much more impressionistic, but now it is much cleaner, smoother and more refined? Was this just part of your evolution as a painter? Or was this more of a deliberate shift on your part?
KM: I’ve actually refined my style quite a lot especially in the larger more ambitious paintings in which the narrative is more specific. I still do some smaller paintings in that quick oil sketch or 1940’s pulp illustration style.

TCoD: Much of your earlier work drew heavily on film noir themes for characters and composition. Your current series of Sequential Narratives (such as "Little Did He Know" at the right) seems to draw on more contemporary film and TV shows. How do you believe film and TV has influenced you as a painter? Does David Lynch fit in there anywhere? Is your film noir period over?
KM: I think that film and TV are my primary influences. Even more than traditional art historical sources. The way television and film tell the story, how they frame the images and compositions, and even the lighting are really important to me and I think about them all the time.

David Lynch. Hmmm. . . I’ve seen all of Lynch’s films and I like David Lynch in theory, but, he tries way too hard to be weird. I think he tries to shock whereas I actually like to be more predictable in my scenarios. I think I would still be making the paintings I do even had I not ever seen one of Lynch’s films.

TCoD: What's with the waterglass paintings? (See "Pollyana" at left)
KM: There’s a feature about that particular series in “The Artist” magazine this month. You can tell a lot about a person just by asking them, “Is the glass is half empty or is it half full?” I like painting portraits and still life and this was a perfect excuse do just that but with a thesis or theme in which to explore. I guess they are the visual equivalent to a haiku. They are limited in form but within the formula, a half glass of water and a character, you can say and explore a lot of ideas.

TCoD: To me, one of your most interesting paintings is Los Angeles. It reminds me very much of the painting "Second Story Sunlight" by Edward Hopper. But the figures also have this Thomas Hart Benton feel to them. Is this a meditation on aging and fleeting youth? Is this a metaphor about Los Angeles? Is there a homoerotic subtext? What's going on here?
KM: Yes, you are completely correct! (That’s what I say to anyone who interprets one of my paintings.)

TCoD: Your more recent paintings seem to involve quality of light more and more. Your earlier work seemed to deal more with cinematic lighting, but now you seem to be dealing more with natural light (such as "In Martini Veritas" at right). Am I just making this up or is there something to it?
KM: Yes, it has to do more with my abilities as a photographer and a painter. I’m getting better reference material. I’ve also learned a lot more about observing and painting light and color in the last year.

TCoD: Your wife, friends and students dress up and play characters in your paintings. Do people volunteer for this or do you choose your subjects?
KM: It’s a combination or a negotiation. I do keep a sketchbook of written out scenarios. I go to thrift stores and get the clothing I need and then I throw a party or visit a party at a sympathetic friend's house. It helps if everyone is drunk. I also ask my students to pose sometimes. You would be surprised how many people are hams.

TCoD: How long does a typical painting take? How much revision is involved and is that a process you enjoy?
KM: Size counts but let’s say one of the glass of water paintings as a midsize one 36”x48” would take about 40 to 60 actual hours to make. This is spread out over several weeks and I usually have two to three paintings going on at the same time.

It starts with writing out the scenario. The photo shoot is usually around two hours (setting up props lights and actually shooting.)

Next is three to five hours of Photoshop on the computer composing, moving things, analyzing light and color and modifying different versions of the batch of reference photos.

Laying out the drawing takes around two to three hours.

The acrylic underpainting takes about eight hours. Often I redraw and reblock in areas of the painting while in this phase. My wife actually tells me when things are off or look bad.

The last layer of oil paint usually takes two to three eight-hour days. This phase runs about twenty-four hours. During this phase I go back the next day and fix the problems that I had not noticed the day before.

TCoD: You explain on your Web site how you use photography to assist you with your composition. Because you make such extensive use of photography, is it a challenge to keep your work painterly and not photorealistic?
KM: It’s not a challenge at all for me. I paint as if I was painting from life and the forms are not abstract for me. When I paint a hand I think of the muscles and skeleton under it so I still lay the forms down by blocking them in a wet into wet 19th century style. I actually think I have more in common with Sargent, N.C. Wyeth and pulp illustrators than I do with photorealists like Bechtle or Estes.

TCoD: Now that you mention it, I can definitely see the influences of Sargent, N.C. Wyeth and pulp illustrators. But I also can see classical influences (see "The Calling of Marc" at right) in some of your work that I just can't place. Can you help a brother out here?
KM: Oh yeah. . . Don’t get me started. I think that one of the greatest painters that ever lived was Velasquez and tracing back from there Caravaggio. I sometimes flatter myself into thinking that I’m a modern caravaggisti (Italian for follower of Caravaggio). I love both those artists for their use of everyday items and things and for their very theatrical shifts of light and shadow. I’m an art historian so I look at old masters’ works all the time. I’m constantly stealing from art historical sources such as Artemisia Gentileschi, Michael Sweerts, Vermeer, and Rembrandt.

Still, in the words of Chauncey Gardner, “I like to watch.” Even more to the point I love to look at all art. One of my all time favorite artists is David Tomb. Recently artists like Lucien Freud (NSFW), Bo Bartlett, and Odd Nerdrum are some of my favorite views but I also love graphic novelists and artists like Frank Miller and Alex Ross. I also really dig some vernacular photo web sites such as http://www.bighappyfunhouse.com.

TCoD: I saw you used to teach at Texas A&M in Laredo? That seems like, um, an odd fit. How did that go?
KM: Not so well. They liked me because I was a far out import. The political, economic, and moral climate of Laredo seemed toxic. I found the town and the people of Laredo to be very much in line with the film “A Touch of Evil.” I actually took a $10,000 pay cut to move back to the San Francisco area. I would have stayed if my job were in any other Texas city. I really like Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio. My wife and I would flee Laredo once or twice a month and spend weekends and holidays in these cities.

TCoD: I see your going to be showing in Dallas again at the Dahlia Woods Gallery. You've shown in the past at Craighead Green. How did it go the first time and why are you coming back?
KM: Ineffable stuff happens sometimes and you just lose a gallery for random reasons. Craighead Green broke up with me I think because they just stopped selling my work. I’m not sure how or why I had a great run of sales with them initially but then they stopped being able to sell the work after the first two years. Dahlia actually bought some of my work while on a trip to San Francisco. A year or so after Craighead Green stopped returning my calls Dahlia opened a gallery. I contacted her and now we are working together. It’s funny, she and I went to the High School of Art and Design in New York although at different times. At least she likes my work enough to literally put her money where her mouth is. Go figure!

TCoD: I love your Web site, and one of the most interesting things about it is the blog where you show step-by-step the process of creating a painting. I know that lots of bands and musicians are using the Web and blogs to break down the walls between them and their audiences, but I haven't seen as much of that between an artist and his audience. Does your Web presence help you communicate with your audience/customers or is it something more for the benefit of your students or is it a little of both? I'm wondering why I don't see more artists doing this kind of thing. Is it I just don't get out much?
KM: My Web site is one of the best outreach tools I have. I love to correspond with people about art and yes, the website does tend to break down barriers and add to communication.

I primarily began it as a tool for my students to use and have access to all of the lessons and images that I use in both my art history and studio courses. It has developed organically as a public relations tool, mainly because I wanted to share what I know about painting.

I’m also interested in what my audience has to say about the work. The blog takes an enormous amount of work and I am actually backlogged on it right now. I have a ton of digital images that I haven’t edited or posted yet as step by step examples of how I work.

TCoD: Thanks, Kenney! Drop us a line when you're in town.


LPJ said...

Wow! Thanks for the great interview. I'm not familiar with Kenney Mencher, and his work is amazing. One (uninformed) observation: A couple of the pieces made me think of celebrities. For example, I imagine Billy Bob Thornton in Home Alone. That, in turn, reminded me of an artist named Brandon Bird I enjoy. I'm no art critic, but there's something about looking at Christopher Walken building a robot in his basement that makes my soul happy. I suspect it might be a little too pop-culture referential to survive the test of time, but it's fun ...

bxdropout said...

Mencher's work at times is very thought pervoking, likes to use gay guys alot, think he had a problem with booze/drugs at one time, think he's very insecure and wants acceptance. Doesn't like talking about his growing up in the Bronx, shame, shame.

Anonymous said...

Seems that alot of the current artist are using camera's to take pictures then painting what they see. I guess they can't just paint a picture? Mencher's works are usually in small galleries. You won't find his works in any NY gallery, because they don't know who he is. I believe he's had his share of problems in the past, it shows in his paintings.

Steve-O said...

And, by using that logic, one could conclude that Thomas Eakins couldn't paint a picture either.

Anonymous said...

If you look at all of Menchers work he shows women in less than admirable situations, women bond by rope with rabbi's ranting. His half glass, people sitting looking at half glass, is that him when he had addiction problems? I see a unhappy man with control issues.