Shooting Star

The comet Hyakutake has just passed close enough--9 million miles or so--to be seen from the earth without the aid of a telescope. Just over a year ago, the comet was completely unknown, even to the amateur astronomer in Japan who ultimately discovered it and for whom it was named; it seems to have come from out of nowhere in the depths of space. But last week, Hyakutake was the brightest light in the late-night sky. And then, just as quickly, it was on its way.

Artists can be like that, too.
Consider Wes Kennedy's meteoric career. In 1986, while still a college kid at Metro State, Kennedy shot--just like Hyakutake--through the Denver art firmament, propelled by the "Overman Suite" of black-and-white photographs he'd unveiled at the now-closed 2/C photo co-op at Pirate. Overnight, it became apparent to everyone that Kennedy was a creative force to be reckoned with; eventually his local reputation came to rival, and perhaps even eclipse, that of his nationally known mentor, Ruth Thorne-Thomsen, then among his art teachers.

From the start, Kennedy's gift was so obvious that no special knowledge of primitive photography, his chosen medium, was needed in order to appreciate it. (Kennedy was part of a group of Denver photographers, many of them his classmates at Metro, who were experimenting at the time with pinhole photography and cheap plastic cameras.) But seven years later, in 1993, with a formidable body of work under his belt, his light went out. Kennedy was dead from AIDS.

Although a spectacular--if irksomely ahistorical--memorial exhibition was mounted soon after Kennedy's death at the now-defunct Grant Gallery, his work has not been seen much since, and thus our memories of it have necessarily faded. (Except when we see the work of the many artists he inspired--or of those who continue to knock him off.) And Kennedy himself was concerned about being forgotten after he died. So he left his work to a trust--the WRK Trust--which has as its mandates the preservation, promotion and exhibition of Kennedy's images. The trust also intends to sell estate copies of the work, which will eventually fund a foundation to provide financial help for "painters and photographers in need."

The trust is jointly administered by Kennedy's dear friend, well-known Denver painter Dale Chisman, and by his former companion and sometime studio assistant, Michael Murray. It was Chisman and Murray, along with another old friend, Robin Rule, director of the Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery, who decided the time was right to look again at part of the magnificent legacy Kennedy left behind. The result is the beautiful ten-photo show in the small back gallery at Rule, Wes Kennedy: Shadow Plays 1986-1987.

Although only one or two of the photos in Shadow Plays has been exhibited before, the majority are stylistically related to "Overman Suite" and were executed at roughly the same time. But there are also several highly experimental and uncharacteristically funny pieces, as well as another set that features appropriated images.

Both the humorous photos and the appropriations seem set apart from the concerns typically associated with Kennedy's artistic program, especially as he laid it out in "Overman Suite." In those photos, Kennedy put his figures, often the male nude, in some kind of struggle--at times with death. These dramatic tableaux vivants were then placed against various constructed sets featuring elements evocative of sports, games, science, medicine and religion, often conveyed through simple white line drawings. The combination of subjects essentially became Kennedy's signature, and maybe that's why the photos most closely related to "Overman Suite" stand out here.

"The Boxer" is a masterful 1986 silver gelatin print, a very fuzzy self-portrait of the still physically robust Kennedy shadowboxing in a fighter's pose against a nearly black ground. Above his head, in the right corner, is a childish white line drawing of boxers. The effect is dreamlike, chock-full of psychosexual content--and inimitable, made unique by Kennedy's intensely personal subject matter.

Another silver gelatin print, "Newton's Law," dated 1986-87, likewise features the artist's naked shoulders. Once again, Kennedy, who occupies the bottom center of the photograph, is shot out of focus and seen against a virtually black background. Floating dead center above his head is another of those crude scribbles, this one of--what else?--an apple that's about to hit him. After all, that is Newton's law.

The unnerving and eerie "Pagliacci," a 1986-87 silver gelatin print, bears some similarities to these self-portraits, but there are distinct differences, too. Here Kennedy is looking self-consciously at nineteenth-century studio photography. The seated clown of opera fame, his iconic dunce cap on his head, his hands in his lap, strikes a pose suggestive of the formal photographic portraits popular during the Victorian era. The historical feel is enhanced by the heavy tied-back draperies that bracket the crying clown.

"Chicken Delight," a 1986-87 silver gelatin print, is one of those photos that displays unexpected humor, in this case a true grossout. A table covered with a checkered tablecloth holds a severed human head (a model poking his head through a hole in the table top a la Lucille Ball); behind the table, another model, dressed up like a chicken, wields a meat cleaver. "Nuclear Family," a 1986-87 silver gelatin print, sets up another sight gag, as well as a play on words: The heads of the models have been replaced with graphic symbols for the atom. "Nuclear Family" also features a reference to another work of art, Grant Wood's famous 1930s painting "American Gothic." But instead of holding a pitchfork, this couple holds a broom.

Two other photos, both silver gelatin prints from 1986-87, echo other artists' images. "The Scream" is a translation of Edvard Munch's renowned turn-of-the-century painted essay on depression that bears the same title. A model, in a sea of swirling forms created with photo chemicals, holds his hands to the sides of his head while mouthing a scream of despair. Kennedy eliminated all evidence of the photographic method by "drawing" on the print during developing, obscuring most of the realistic elements.

He used a lighter touch in the darkroom with "Le Violon D'Ingres," a takeoff on a widely known Man Ray photo. The piece is a rear view of a seated nude female whose back has been painted with replicas of a violin's sound holes; the curves of her body convey the instrument's familiar shape. The photo is torn and wrinkled; although this look is intentional in many of Kennedy's later pieces, especially his monumental works, here it may have happened accidentally. His use of appropriations was certainly intentional, however, and he was right on time with the concept, which was on the cutting edge of contemporary photography in the 1980s. But he never pursued it much further.

In a way, the photos in Shadow Plays are the B-sides, the outtakes, the pieces Kennedy had put away--not unlike those "new" Beatles songs. And perhaps, like John Lennon, he never meant for us to know about them. But no matter what Kennedy intended, the viewer should be grateful to the Rule Gallery for the opportunity to glimpse these rare and heavenly sights.

Wes Kennedy: Shadow Plays 1986-1987, through April 29, at Rule Modern and Contemporary Gallery, 111 Broadway, 777-9473.


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