Chris Kenny by Alain de Botton, 2003

St Raymond of Peñafort is typically thought to be one of the Catholic Church’s most scholarly saints. Born in Spain in 1175, he became a professor of canon law, published a number of revered treatises on ecclesiastical legislation (including his masterpiece, the Summa Casuum) and occupied a succession of high posts in the Church under Pope Gregory IX. But in Chris Kenny’s world, St Raymond of Peñafort is also a twig, one of a series of twig-people in a large white box (including other Catholic luminaries like St Moses the Ethiopian and St Catherine Dei Ricci) called ‘Twenty Saints’. It’s part of Chris Kenny’s genius to collide apparently incongruous elements of the world in a way that will tickle, move us and make us dream. Once it has been aligned with the name of a saint, we start to search Kenny’s twig for human features, and surprise ourselves by finding plenty of them. Raymond, dynamic, agile, tense, seems to differ substantially from St Moses, hunched and oppressed by cares (he ran a community of monks in the desert). St Catherine is playful, almost dancing. St Fructuosus seems to be holding out his hands like an eager child wanting to prove his vigour in scrubbing them. Twigs, previously mute, their shapes perhaps dismissed as random and valueless, acquire in Kenny’s work subtly nuanced identities, while the saints, their names silently entombed in ecclesiastical history, start to sing again of the wonder of lives committed to a now largely forgotten god.

Kenny is a master at delicately excising something – a phrase, a leaf, a road in a map – from its normal setting, and settling it into a diminutive white museum where, hovering an inch or so above the base, it becomes free to release a new meaning; what Kenny calls ‘a hidden narrative or symbolic message’. Decontextualisation has been a manoeuvre of modern art ever since Duchamp asked us to look anew at a urinal. When Picasso upturned a bicycle seat and stuck a pair of handlebars on it, we saw a bull where there had previously been only a piece of leather and metal. In Kenny’s ‘Fall 2003’, a group of autumn leaves tumbles towards earth, each bearing one of a range of human names, from the exotic to the comically contemporary and banal: Jeff, Victor, Penny, Manuel, Trevor. We are tempted to laugh at the idea of leaves with names on them, for leaves are after all the most nameless, most generic of things. And yet there is a sublime poignancy to this conjunction typical of Kenny’s work. We soon realise the joke is as much, if not more, on us than on the leaves, for it is our innocent faith in the individuality, the distinctness and the longevity of humans that is in truth being challenged through the combination. It is autumn, the leaves are dying, and we’re reminded that Victor and Penny (who perhaps now have cars and toothbrushes and complex lives) will one day go the way of all foliage. Kenny’s box ends up a wry essay on the passing of things: a memento mori for a post-vanitas age.

Given Kenny’s interest in decontextualisation, it is fitting that he should recently have become so captivated by that most context-specific,  most rooted of objects: the map. While we are trained to consider the elements of a map solely for the purpose of getting us to our destination, Kenny teaches us to look at them as poetic objects in their own right. His roads go nowhere, his lakes are shorn of their surrounding landscape,  his squares have none of their approach roads. Stripped bare, they may not tell us how to get to our destination, but they take us somewhere highly interesting nevertheless. In Kenny’s words, he replaces ‘the cartographer’s logic with an absurd imaginative system. The roads float and interact in unlikely combinations that allow one’s mind to ricochet back and forth between disparate locations and associations… These map lines come loaded with meaning and an unconscious poetry, representing as they do an earnest attempt to bring order to the shambles of the earth's surface. When I'm cutting a little street and sticking it on a pin, I often think about what exactly is happening on that street right now... the fact that people are walking along it, cars are driving along it, people are looking at each other, people are talking. And I think that's an extraordinary thing - the jump from this tiny scrap of paper, this little, tiny symbol to a real place in real time is mind-blowing.’ But Kenny’s interest in maps is not limited to associations. There are also more formal pleasures to be found in these projects, which both skilfully challenge and pay homage to Mondrian. Kenny specifies: ‘I am, in a way, reversing Mondrian's move from the specific to the universal, while also investing the composition with more precise meaning and resonance.’

One of the potentially troubling features of Kenny’s art is that it can be very funny. Troubling because we are, of course, taught to associate profundity in art with seriousness. But if the art ultimately rises above any criticisms that could be levelled at it on account of its charm, it is perhaps because what we are laughing at is almost always the grave absurdity of much of what we are. A number of Kenny’s collages could be seen as satires of our over-confident assertions. ‘France and Russia are not the same thing!’ reads one quote on a pin. ‘Visit small streams’ goes another. We are induced to smile at the naive, self-confident sides of our natures and do so all the more because Kenny’s boxes are themselves so sober and disciplined, like a comic holding a very straight face. ‘It’s easy to skip over the Middle Ages.’ Indeed.

There is something childlike too (in the most grown-up of ways) in Kenny’s art, for it is children who best retain an awareness of the semi-hidden connections between things. Kenny speaks of his desire to perform ‘rescue operations’ on submerged meanings. In ‘Twenty-Five Moths’, a quotation beneath each creature turns out to be ingeniously aligned to its particular appearance. ‘I want to see the world,’ it reads below one moth, who does – now that Kenny has made the connection for us – seem especially energetic, curious and bold. ‘All my dreams are coming true at last,’ it says below another, this one much fatter, a touch self-satisfied, perhaps heading for a fall (or a bad encounter with a mothball). ‘Bring me a little crème de menthe,’ it reads below a third, this one feminine and delicate, fragile, prone to chills in the evening breeze. And finally, a fourth moth, this one my favourite, complains ‘I can’t believe this is happening to me,’ – thereby touchingly evoking our semi-conscious fear that reincarnation may indeed be true and that we too therefore run a significant risk of ending up as a small winged creature on a pin, crying out to an indifferent universe for our dignity and our favourite evening drink.

In this new collection, the tensions in Kenny’s work – between the funny and the bleak, the order and the chaos, the banal and the profound – are at a new pitch. Here is an artist working at the height of his powers within his chosen parameters, an artist who has learnt some of the best lessons of the art of the last century and turned its insights into something utterly personal and beguiling.