Between the Light and Dark With Steven Kenny
Standing at the creamer station of a Starbucks in downtown St. Pete eight years ago, I first came upon Steven Kenny’s work when I looked up at the cork board covered in community fliers at the one thing that really popped out: an exhibition announcement postcard featuring his oil painting The Whale, a child in a yellow dress sitting in a dark seascape, fishing pole in hands, on what appeared to be both a rock and a whale head. I memorized the date of his art opening and showed up to see the painting at ARTicles Art Gallery later that week.
Years later in New Orleans, I came upon more of his paintings on the second floor of the Angela King Gallery in the French Quarter. Excited to come upon a slice of home, I took photos and posted them onto Facebook, which he seemed to appreciate.
Kenny gets around. With semi-regular exhibitions in Florida, Louisiana, Texas, New York, Virginia and New Mexico as well as other states and countries overseas, it was only a matter of time before a museum retrospective was in order.
So, what started as a simple phone call to the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art to offer them a painting for their permanent collection turned into a grand showing of his work spanning 32 years. The museum has organized his work into 10 sections: Florida-inspired Paintings, Birds As Symbolism, Artist-Illustrator, Figure In Nature, Women With Headdresses, Children, Animals With Crowns, The Macabre, Night Paintings, and Mysticism.
I ask if his Macabre and Night Paintings are from the same period, and he says the Night Painting group of work is more a collection of dark paintings from different times. And those Macabres?
“There was a period where everything was going along fine and then stuff started happening — my parents died, I got divorced, I got arrested, everything got darker,” he said. “My paintings got darker and darker until they were almost black and white.”
Kenny comes off to me as someone who keeps himself in check at all times, so I appreciated that he let me in on this burst of sunshine into his darker side, a burst like the lemon sunshine he painted for a Celestial Seasonings tea-box, illustrations which will be in the show. He gained some recognition in New York City, after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design as a freelance commercial illustrator for Sony Music, Time Magazine, Microsoft and Celestial Seasonings among others. He moved to St. Petersburg in 2012. He’s currently working on a new Celestial Seasoning’s piece, which is still a secret.
However, his Leepa-Rattner art show is no secret. Internal Landscapes: The Mysterious World of Steven Kenny opens with a Member’s Opening Reception on Jan. 20, 2018 (free for LRMA members, $15 for non-members), opens to the public the following day and features a gallery talk on Feb. 8.
In addition to his paintings that curator Christine Renc-Carter had gathered, they had borrowed 15 more from local collectors. Some people were excited to lend their purchased paintings while others were more reticent and needed reassurance the work would be okay for a 4-month hiatus out of their homes for a museum show. Kenny seemed to take it in good stride, noting that people have different comfort levels, while I rolled my eyes in annoyance at the idea of someone making an issue of such a thing. Of course, you’ve got to be more diplomatic in a medium-to-small Southern town. Social suicide is why the risk-factor is high for publishing in-depth art criticism or making public personal remarks in smaller metropolitan areas.
In describing his bodies of work, Kenny takes his personal history milestones and casts it all out as the sea upon which his paintings float, a sea of conditioning from the Catholic doctrines of his childhood education, his tensions around family, his relationship with nature, 1970s progressive rock, the unconscious mind and the traditional trade secrets and stories throughout art history with a particular fondness for Surrealism.
For example, he’s a volunteer docent at the Dali Museum. When he conducts his tours, at times he wears a magnificent long coat embroidered in ornate Victorian detail. For how well-mannered and measured he appears on the outside, I imagine his mind runs wild on the inside. He proudly calls himself a Surrealist, using his unconscious as inspiration. Kenny especially opened up this side of himself when he ventured into abstraction.
“I’d been working really darkly for a long time and wanted to intentionally loosen things up and bring more color back into the paintings,” he said. “But once I started doing that and started playing around with abstraction, if I was going to be any good at painting abstractly, I’d have to work another 30 years to get good at it, so that’s a reason I went back to what I normally do.”
I admire your high level of respect for abstract paintings, I told him. Often, people just slop pigment around, call it easy, and fling it up on a wall with a wildly high price tag and no sense of shame.
“I do have a lot of respect for abstract paintings,” he said. “It’s not easy to do.”
I ask him about the mysticism in his paintings, like, is he some sort of American Taoist? He says no, it’s more like honoring the spirituality in everything, and references his Catholic upbringing again. The mystical paintings are looser and more colorful than his other works. In almost all of them, there are two figures, each a reflection of the other. A person broken into two with the physical and the spiritual interacting.
“And in those two I was toying with abstraction more than I normally do in my other, tighter paintings,” he said.
So, is it that he was doing all this realism and then wanted to break out of his own superimposed limitations, broke out through abstraction and then came back from this space, back to realism, yet this time with an enhanced dimension to the work that he brought back from his ventures into the abstract?
“Yes, that’s perfect,” he said. “That’s what happened.”
I knew it.