The Matter of Facts by Andrew Spira, 2005
Jealousy is useful. All particles possess a wave-like aspect. Simon Tease cannot sneeze.
On the face of things, Chris Kenny's work is orderly and rational. In many of his distinctive cabinets, objects of the same type are lined up in the regimented manner of a scientific classification, apparently indicating an intention to distinguish, rationalise and communicate the differences between them. In most cases, the 'specimens' have been found rather than made, underlining the impression that the artist is 'researching' rather than 'inventing' them. The process of conceiving and making the boxes is also reminiscent of an experiment. It includes browsing through books, rummaging through car-boot sales and surfing the net, cutting the texts into strips (with a surgical scalpel) and sorting them into categories, such as 'statements of time passing' or 'people blaspheming'. The actual organisation and construction of the pieces, which can take days and nights to assemble, is also immensely detailed and painstaking.
The immediate appearance of the works - geometrical and abstract - suggests that they belong to the pure and clear world of early modernism. In text pieces, like Look at the Facts, this association is present in the discreet and elegant shades of white and grey, the predominance of words, the subtle sensitivity to the aesthetic interest of shadows and the use of constructivist materials such as wood, glass, metal and paper. The frequently square shape of the boxes recalls the grandiose and definitive statements of Kasimir Malevich, and the discerning and often highly organised use of colour, principally in the map works, recalls the micro-extravagance of Piet Mondrian.
And so, a self-conscious relationship to the 20th century avant-garde is certainly (and deliberately) present in Kenny's work. But this is not to be taken at face value. The work may speak the language of this tradition, but it also gently mimics its - and the viewer's - pretensions to be refined, classic and complete. Although the surface appearance of the work seems to associate it with aspects of early modernism, the floor of the artist's studio bears a closer resemblance to the drip works of Jackson Pollock and the surreal paper-falls of Hans Arp. In some crucial if ironic ways, this more wayward heritage takes us closer to the spirit of the work itself. For, although the works are indeed very beautiful, they are not exercises in perfection or aestheticism. On the contrary, within their beauty and apparent objectivity, there exists a level of radical absurdity and subjectivity that threatens to undermine them. For instance, the specimens that Kenny chooses to classify in tiers include strangely emotional buildings, traumatised twig-saints and banal but opinionated moths. In 42 Boys, the faces of schoolchildren, taken from old school photographs, are lined up above statements of ambition or confession. Maybe these brief utterances tragically anticipate and summarise their destinies, now fulfilled but never to be known. The work reminds us that it is also our melancholy destiny to fade like photographs, to become nameless and be forgotten, but it also gives the redemptive impression that this unglamorous destiny is so certain that every statement of fact - however arbitrary or absurd - participates in its truth.
Despite his sense of paradox, Kenny is careful not to merely indulge the obvious irony of disjunction that has provided the fodder for so much art in recent years. He also manages - and this may be the crux of the matter - to weave a deeply felt thread of poetry into each work. In the boxes of facts, for instance, one can begin at any point in the work, and experience sorrow, pity, inward smiles and out-loud laughter in any order and still come away with a coherent sense of meaning and pathos. It is as if people's need to realise and imprison certainty in statements of fact is greater than their desire for such statements to be true or false, happy or sad. One senses that, in the words of William Blake, “all things possible to be believed are an image of truth”.
In Warehouse, the impersonal boldness of a quasi-industrial building, incorporating a taxonomy of wall-spaces (which vaguely recall Le Corbusier's chapel at Ronchamp), is undermined by the pathos of the fact that the building is designed in the form of a discarded shirt (a motif that featured in Kenny's early work). The garment is sorrowfully suggestive, maybe like a tombstone, of the absent person who is no longer wearing it. But it is also alive, anxious and inviting in the sense that a heart may be locked behind the bars in its chest; and its door, mildly evocative of a crotch, is slightly ajar. This is a world of visual metaphor and punning, where things that look like each other are made to become each other - just as homonyms telescope meanings into each other. In this world, a warehouse becomes a 'house you can wear', and a 'house that asks “where?”’.
Kenny's map-works have neither anthropomorphic shapes nor verbal statements to humanise them. In place of these motifs, roads, football pitches, dual carriageways, golf-club car parks and innumerable other routes and places - all cut from maps from around the world and identified in numerous different languages - are re-arranged in new configurations and raised on pins, like miniature spaghetti junctions. These re-workings of maps do not record geographical areas; they chart the very nature of place itself, and the processes of mind and memory that are accommodated there. Despite the absence of manifestly personal frames of reference, the map-works are infused with a distinctive poetry that conflates the absurdity and tragedy of human tendencies. This is achieved by visualising the routes and routines that we create for ourselves (which, in maps, become depersonalised and subject to their own conventions) and allowing them to reflect the tragic absurdity of our attempts to rationalise our lives. The works appear to conform to the conventional notion that 'places are relative to each other', which it is the business of maps to convey; but they also suggest, by rendering the relationships between places arbitrary and meaningless, that there is only one place in the universe - a multifarious place no doubt, but nonetheless a single one - which is the totality of space itself. Either there is nowhere to go - in which case a map is superfluous - or, as the proverbial village idiot (or sage?) said when asked how to get to the city: “you can't get there from here!”. In each case, as Kenny playfully suggests (without ever being earnest and explicit), it is impossible and absurd to attempt to navigate one's way through life strategically. But he is not po-faced about this futility. Far from it. The refreshing and shameless enjoyment of exuberant shape and colour in the map works - they are almost painterly - reflects a subtle acceptance and wry celebration of the fact that just being here, however convoluted, incomprehensible and absurd it may seem, is enough, more than enough; delicious, even.