Chris Kenny: Collecting Himself by Gabriel Coxhead, 2011

Chris Kenny is a collector. That’s to say, his practice as an artist involves amassing and classifying certain specimens, and then exhibiting his finds within a display case. Not that he’s intending an exhaustive catalogue – rather, his collections are more like eighteenth-century cabinets of curiosities: repositories for different sorts of ephemera, for wonders from around the world. Certainly, it’s hard to think of anything more ephemeral, or more wonderful, than what Kenny collects – yet, at the same time, more utterly commonplace: words, snippets of sentences, and odd turns of phrase; shapes lifted from maps and scientific diagrams – in short, different kinds of representation, the sort of quotidian signs and symbols that codify and communicate meaning. His hunting grounds are books – old and new, fact and fiction, academic and popular – as well as other forms of printed material, all of which he ruthlessly harvests, neatly extracting the most compelling elements and sorting them into different categories, before mounting each individual specimen aloft on a tiny pin.

The final displays are witty, severe, paradoxical things – appearing at once rational and also deeply surreal (indeed, the collages of Max Ernst are a touchstone for Kenny). With their clear evidence of painstaking research, their specimens neatly arrayed behind glass, they evoke a museological atmosphere, a feeling of scientific study and scrutiny. Equally, they seem like some sort of absurdist game, playful and whimsical – a jumbled, even slightly deranged nonsense poetry of odd associations and poignant combinations, in which hundreds of sentence fragments clamour for attention, or ludicrous juxtapositions emerge: distant geographical locations nestling next to each other, for instance, in the cartographic collections; or bizarre discrepancies of diagrammatic scale, so that microscopic bacteria sections appear to dwarf the nearby figures of planets.

Everywhere you look in Kenny’s work, things seem both highly regular and rigorous, yet simultaneously irreverent and volatile, as if on the verge of slipping completely out of kilter. And the wonder of it all is the way that Kenny, throughout, manages to maintain a balance, a kind of fraught and exquisite tension, between these two opposing tendencies.

It may sound whimsical or contrived, this sense and threat of things slipping out of control, but it’s not. We rely on systems of language, on signs and symbols, automatically and instinctively in everyday life; and the prospect of their collapse is deeply unnerving. Look closely at Kenny’s work: yes, the snippets of text and image are frequently humorous – because things that disturb us are often manifested as humour. And what we’re profoundly disturbed by, here, is the realisation of just how fragile and vulnerable language truly is, and how easily such systems of representation can be destabilized and subverted – how, ultimately, behind the façade of signification, behind the sentences and signs in Kenny’s vitrines, there’s only a terrible emptiness, a profound lack of rootedness. In that sense, it’s perhaps possible to see his work as a kind of analogy to Saussure’s structural linguistics, whereby differences between linguistic elements (equivalent, here, to Kenny’s taxonomies) are what alone give cohesion to language; and there is never any prior system of meaning that lies behind these elements.

And yet, even as Kenny’s works seem to undermine our reliance on language and representation, at the same time they also perform a sort of rescue operation – seeking to bolster and strengthen these very elements, to shore them up against collapse, to literally fix them in place. Mounted on pins and arranged behind glass, Kenny’s specimens seem to transcend their status as mere images, as mass-produced ephemera. Instead, they are able to be viewed objectively – that is, to be viewed as objects: stable, durable, and unique; possessing physical form and presence.

What Kenny’s works do, then, is enable a kind of alchemical transformation to take place. By being displayed as part of a physical collection, the representations undergo a change in their nature – no longer symbols that signify some extraneous meaning, but becoming objects in and of themselves, somehow ennobled and elevated – just as the specimens are literally elevated above the background within the vitrines. In short, they have moved away from the realm of representation, and closer to that of presentation.

It’s this sense of existing in the present that lends his specimens their air of immediacy, authority, and actuality. In his ‘facts’ collections, for example, trite clichés suddenly appear revitalised (“the weekend starts here”), while more declarative or subjective phrases start to seem utterly definitive (“weeds are often associated with earthworms”; “to disapprove of gangsta rap is pointless”). And, as for the works that use sections of maps and scientific diagrams, the sense of objecthood is even more overt, as we’re naturally drawn to take account of their most formal attributes: their shape, colour, size and so on.

In that sense, it’s tempting to view Kenny’s works as fitting within a formalist, modernist lineage – where the necessary and self-conscious act of looking at a work, and considering its objective properties, is emphasized. Certainly, his work has been discussed in such terms, and he himself acknowledges the influence of art from the modern period on his practice. Yet it’s important to remember that this is only ever half of what’s going on; and that, simultaneously, there’s the continual threat of collapse and fragmentation. So that with the map pieces, for instance, even while our attention is inevitably directed to the literal here-and-now of each element’s specific, physical form, there’s also a tension, a sense of desperate disjunction, between this and the myriad, impossible locations being portrayed.

In this particular case, the tension results in something that feels jarring and quirky, almost droll. Just as often, though, it produces something that feels lugubrious, even rather mournful – as if Kenny’s attempt to fix the representations in place, to pin them down in a stable condition of objecthood, was something to be regretted, perhaps even a kind of crime. Hence, I think, the comparison which is sometimes made between Kenny’s pieces and lepidoptery – not only because the frequently beautiful colours of his specimens are reminiscent of butterfly collections; but also because of the depressing truth that the exhibition of butterflies’ beauty necessarily implies their death. So too in Kenny’s work, where his specimens’ objective presence, and their threatened collapse, are not simply two opposing tendencies; rather, they are two sides of the same coin, the one reciprocally causing the other – and both of them stemming from a desire to somehow clear away, to launch a kind of assault against, representation.

Ultimately, this atmosphere of violence and melancholy permeates all of Kenny’s pieces. Even in his wittiest works, where he arranges text-snippets to create a pastiche of a romance story, there’s the undercurrent, obscure yet palpable, of menace and brutality. And to witness, in Kenny’s studio, the ragged remains of a book, once he has finished removing the choicest cuts, makes for a truly uncomfortable, strangely distressing sight – with its awful implications of vandalism, of some angry, unthinking act of aggression.

 This is not meant metaphorically. Kenny’s practice, at its heart, absolutely is a kind of violent reaction, an exercise in aggression and un-thinking (which is not, needless to say, the same thing as saying that his art is thoughtless). It isn’t books, specifically, to which he is reacting – but rather the entire spectrum of representation, the sheer, overwhelming deluge of text and information that characterises contemporary culture. Not that Kenny is alone in this sense of antagonism – far from it. The ever-increasing amount of information we’re all expected to absorb, our dwindling attention spans, the way the media seems to saturate virtually all aspects of our lives – these are all widespread concerns.

Kenny’s solution, however, if it can be called that, is unique; indeed, his practice as a whole is a means to emphasize the very idea of uniqueness – a way of asserting autonomy in a world of mass-produced signs and symbols. It is, necessarily, an intensely physical solution – which is why he deals with the material stuff of books and paper, rather than the intangible realm of the internet. For it’s precisely through such physical practises as excising, arranging, and displaying that his art argues for an individual’s potential to reshape the visual world, to alter its received meanings.

His ultimate aim, though, is psychic: a kind of mental, or even existential, release. It’s as if, having come across these bits of textual and visual representation in various books, having read and internalised them, Kenny feels a need to externalise and objectify them, or to subvert and destabilize them – to get them out of his mind and into the world: hence, a process of un-thinking. For Kenny, then, carving up a book, this act of meticulous violence, becomes a way of cutting through the suffocating deluge of representation; of clearing some space for himself, where he can exist on his own terms – a form of self-representation, essentially.

Once it’s recognized that Kenny’s collections are always a kind of personal representation, their façade of museological rigour and sophistication tends to fall away somewhat. His taxonomies, after all, are fairly whimsical – statements of time passing, for example, or descriptions of various noises ­– as if they were simply tricks to kick-start the process of gathering and excising – particularly so with the map and diagram pieces, where the categories are like the sort of thing a child might come up with, arranging specimens according to colour or shape. That’s partly the point, perhaps: the childlike sensibilities implying a more fundamental, a more intrinsic sense of selfhood.

Not that Kenny isn’t aware of the irony of creating personal expressions solely out of second-hand materials. Indeed, his work seems to suggest, it’s precisely this irony that characterises our daily lives – that in a world of endless representation, every action is always a reaction, every articulation a quotation. This, quite simply, is what it means to live inside our culture; and the only option, Kenny’s argument runs, is to try to use those representations for your own ends. A slightly severe sentiment, perhaps, yet also one capable of producing a strange, wry sort of beauty – as in the work White Circle (Maidenhead Thicket), where Kenny’s swirling, dappled use of various map elements evokes the gesturalism of Abstract Expressionism.

In recent works, however, Kenny has started moving in a different direction, experimenting with a new format which is almost the exact inverse of his collection pieces. In these new works, printed material of different colours, culled from numerous sources including books and magazines, has been cut up to form abstract, dazzlingly striped shapes; and it’s the negative space between and within these shapes that spells out a single, legible phrase. Superficially, then, it almost seems like a literalisation of the idea of him carving out a space for himself; and similarly, the explosive, mesmerising patterns seem to initially indicate a greater sense of assurance and control – a coming to terms with the products of mass media, perhaps.

Yet, curiously, the words that Kenny has decided to represent, ostensibly freely chosen, nevertheless still seem like quotations: not only “news of the world”, which is obviously a familiar phrase, but also “the middle of the night”, and even the solitary “hazard”. Snippets from signs, perhaps, or statements of time – who knows what collections these might potentially belong to? Here, though, the categories are not developed; and the phrases remain solitary, surrounded and confined by the blazing abstractions of the media. The sense is of being perpetually hemmed in on all sides, so that any statement is always circumscribed; of being mentally colonised, so that viewing these statements in an objective way becomes impossible. Rather than the collapse of representation that was threatened in the collection works, the implication here is that it is the individual himself, and one’s ability to subvert representation for his own ends, that has suffered a collapse.

As such, these recent works mark a moment of delirium within Kenny’s oeuvre – where the scintillating power and queasy seductions of the media have seemingly taken over, making it virtually impossible to sift through the signs and symbols of culture anymore. Living in this state, the works suggest, is like being adrift within a sort of hypnotic, disorientating dream, without any sense of centre or self. And as such, the works stand as an indictment about contemporary culture, with its mesmerising infinitude of representation; and as a warning, too, a kind of collective address. “Are you awake?” asks the final work from the series – desperately urging all of us to respond to this psychic onslaught, to collect our thoughts, to represent ourselves.