by Courtney R. Thompson
Formerly exhibited at the Louise and Reuben Cohen Art Gallery of the Université de Moncton, Garry Neill Kennedy’s “Photoworks, 1969-2011” avows the artist’s politics while broadly questioning the nature of the photographic medium. Kennedy is one of Canada’s national treasures, not only as an artist known primarily as a conceptualist painter, but also as an arts educator with his role as president of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) from 1967-1990. Chronicled in his recent MIT press publication, The Last Art College: Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1968-1978, Kennedy historicizes an impressive intuitive roster of visiting artists including Mel Bochner, Daniel Buren, Lucy Lippard and Martha Rosler, among others. The book celebrates a decade of innovative projects and interactions between students and faculty that brought the institution nearly mythical recognition.
I was pleased to chat with the artist at the opening as he elaborated on a number of artworks while generously inquiring after my own background and interests. While we ruminated on the nature of institutional critique—before it was part of the art vernacular—I noted a genuine accessibility without didacticism under his fierce eyebrows and intellect, a quality that also resonates throughout the exhibition. “Photoworks, 1969-2011” utilizes both analog and digital technologies with images culled from various source materials, from film stills to amateur plane spotters. Grids are primarily used to display the photos but Kennedy playfully backgrounds his arrangements with painted frames, a nod to his conceptual roots. Printed matter has also been a strong component of Kennedy’s practice and several corresponding artist books are available on a table in the gallery near their photoworks offering another representation of the work. Some document as in Recent Plants (1980); another operates as a work in itself, Special Presentation (1982); and others contain accompanying essays or text as with Moving Stills (1991).
The artwork Recent Plants presents a selection of potted plants captured on Polaroid, here affixed on a painted strip of ochre and moss hues. The plants were photographed in situ from art galleries around Toronto. At PLATFORM, as in the first installation at Mercer Union Gallery, actual plants inhabit the space near their image counterpart (although originally some of the plants were the same plants as in the photographs). As previously mentioned, a nearby table presents Recent Plants as an artist book that documents the fifteen Polaroids. This collision of representation offers a more thorough context to Recent Plants while simultaneously complicating its subject as “recent”. As with many of Kennedy’s artworks the rules of engagement are laid out but the play is up to the viewer.
On opposing walls, Moving Stills and Spotted (2009) reflect histories of violence through both plain and hidden sight. Moving Stills consists of forty-two red tinted film stills framed by a dark blue background that depict moments primarily from westerns. The images are largely of the Hollywood “Cowboys and Indians” genre and show climactic scenes of conflict. The effect is one of reductive binaries exposed through exaggerated gesture. Spotted is a grid of twenty-five dark blue tinted prints of airplanes grounded and in flight pulled from thousands of online postings by amateur plane spotters. Kennedy has accessed these image databases of plane spotting enthusiasts and noted CIA “rendition planes” from aircraft identification numbers cataloged by human rights groups. Here Kennedy has chosen to frame the work in orange, further prompting associations with Homeland Security and its color-coded risk alerts.
“Photoworks” also included a performance component. For My Fourth Grade Class Picture (1970), Kennedy digitally reproduced and enlarged a black-and-white photograph of himself and his young classmates. During his performance at PLATFORM he wrote the names he could still remember on the front of the photograph, inverting the practice of individuals signing names and comments on the back for future reference. In this, as in many other artworks in the exhibition, Kennedy queries common assumptions associated with the medium of photography from its role in documentation to an arbiter of truth.
—Courtney R. Thompson
(All images: Garry Neill Kennedy, Installation views; Courtesy PLATFORM centre for photographic + digital arts.)