March 20, 2013




Artforum Online

01.22.13-03.02.13 PDX Contemporary Art

Portland, Oregon–based artist Arnold J. Kemp’s newest body of sculptures, photographs, and works on paper weave a poignant story of belonging and loss. The title of the exhibition, “WHEN WILL MY LOVE BE RIGHT,” is taken from a 1980s soul number by Robert Winters and Fall. It connects Kemp’s poetics of desire and vulnerability to larger social and political concerns, while illuminating the coming-of-age story (perhaps also a coming-out story) that lingers, sweetly, within the work.

At the center of Kemp’s project are four sculptures containing meticulously crafted wearable objects: a group of handmade belts with cast brass buckles bearing the word SHY, and two exquisite pairs of men’s shoes—one formal, one casual. Kemp made the shoes himself. The work LET HIS BODY BECOME A LIVING LETTER, 2013, features lustrous black oxfords sitting alongside a pair of exotic seashells. Both objects possess aesthetic beauty far in excess of their practical function to provide shelter and mobility for two different species whose bodies are absent. Quietly, Kemp’s alliterative nature morte draws our attention to the relationship between nature and culture, and nature and nurture. The belt pieces elicit similar musings: What does it mean to wear one’s shyness on one’s waist, so to speak?

Like an ocean crashing softly in a shell, Kemp’s work whispers its politics. The artist’s portrayal of black male subjectivity is playful, tender, and artisanal. Once during the run of the show, Kemp, who is a poet as well as an author, will perform a play composed of found and original material, giving human voice to the work’s symbolic chorus.

- -
April 13, 2012 by Lisa Radon

- -
Aspect Blindness: Arnold Kemp and Sreshta Rit Premnath
September 7th, 2010 by Thom Donovan


- -

Artforum's Critics Pick : Arnold J. Kemp
November 11, 2009 by Micah Malone

It is tempting to view Arnold J. Kemp’s new work strictly in formal terms: modest collages with black paint, glitter, and googly doll eyes that form abstract patterns and pleasant landscape arrangements. Yet the paint used in each piece seems not simply an aesthetic choice and suggests further musings on the elasticity of Black representation, as well as the personal biography of Kemp, an African-American artist. In several small monochromes, such as Vampire (Titled), 2009, one can see evidence of bright primary colors that were applied prior to the surface coat, a black “skin” of paint. In other works, Kemp affixes groups of googly eyes together, which rummage through the picture and impede on dense patches of black glitter, the mixture both kitschy and mildly foreboding.

The title of the exhibition, “This Quiet Dust, Ladies and Gentlemen,” is an adaptation of an Emily Dickinson poem. Dickinson’s original line reads, “This Quiet Dust was Gentleman and Ladies,” implying quiet dust is the resting ground where men and women now lie. The slight alteration in the text wryly casts Kemp as a host, announcing the entrance of the dust to the audience.

In another series, “(Them) Changes and (Them) Trees,” 2009, photographs extend for the length of a wall. All the images depict a dense crowd of tangled, leafless tree branches at the top of the sheet and reaching beyond the pictures’ frames, as well as a muted sky in the backdrop. Each offers a different composition of the same branches, implying a shift in perspective as one strolls along. The subject might also be someone lying on the ground, gazing at the varied configurations on an overcast day. Or perhaps Kemp is trying to mimic the perspective of the actual ground, the quiet dust exerting its own point of view, after its proper introduction.

- -

Arnold J. Kemp "DAYDREAM NATION" review in the Oregonian
by John Motley

At last week's public symposium on abstraction at Reed College, San Francisco-based poet and art critic Bill Berkson, serving as one of the five panelists, remarked that "the myth of abstraction" is tangled up in a distinctly American understanding of freedom. It's an astute observation, locating a cultural sense of autonomy or, perhaps more accurately, entitlement to the movement's emphasis on uninhibited expression. But his choice of the word "myth" pointedly girded his assertion with a second truth: Just as marginalized segments of the population enjoy meager access to "freedom," so, too, do many abstractionists traffic in ascetic restraint, governed by limitations and rules rather than free-wheeling brio. Berkson's observation is especially pertinent to the current body of work by Portland-based artist Arnold J. Kemp, "Daydream Nation," which can be seen at PDX Contemporary Art this month. The heart of the show is a series of 15 tightly controlled works on square pieces of Chinese paper. Using graphite and Flashe, Kemp's compositions are a balancing act of white and black geometric forms, which range from perfectly halved configurations ("Daydream Nation (1)," all works 2010) to more lopsided arrangements, in which either black or white occupies more or less space ("Daydream Nation," for instance). There's an obvious link to the Chinese concept of yin and yang, but there's also a subtle, almost elemental narrative embedded in the play of forms from piece to piece: Alternately, they appear equal, retreat from one another or encroach into the other's territory. That is, these gentle and contemplative works relate a story of fluid and unresolved coexistence, an evolving struggle of difference to share the same space. In his past work, Kemp, who serves as chairman of PNCA's MFA in Visual Studies program, has explored ideas of blackness as a means to understand and express his experience as an African American. While this investigation is not readily visible in the "Daydream Nation" series -- apart from a lone, ravishingly black painting called "Tonight's Day" -- the content of his previous output inevitably steers interpretations of the current series toward commentary on race relations, specifically between blacks and whites. Certainly, the degree of freedom enjoyed by these two groups has moved incrementally closer to legitimate equality in the past 50 years. But the exhibition's title, taken from the seminal 1988 album by the white art-rock band Sonic Youth, describes a country deluded by wistful fantasy. Perhaps if freedom -- from prejudice, an appalling history of violent discrimination, and so on -- were equitably accessible for all Americans, the hard-edged lines and restricted geometries of Kemp's abstract forms would not feel so balefully concrete.

- -

New York Times ART IN REVIEW; November 9, 2001
Arnold J. Kemp

The first New York gallery show by the San Francisco-based artist Arnold J. Kemp is a small, deftly shaped thematic installation. In photographs and a video, a figure is seen wearing various versions of a Ku Klux Klan hood. In one case it is made of standard-issue white cloth; in another it is imitated by a paper bag. Elsewhere it is fashioned from brightly patterned West African fabrics.

In the past, Mr. Kemp exhibited graphite drawings of African masks and sculptures, basing his work on photographs from art history books. In both laboriously copying and altering already reproduced images he pointed up how conceptually malleable objects are. The spiritual emblems of one culture become the ethnological specimens and aesthetic models of another. At Debs, he does something similar but different with the K.K.K. emblem. The racist implications are implied, but the hoods are linked up with modern African fashion styles and with African masking traditions that are animated by the power of ritualistic secrecy. Here evil becomes prettified, neutralized, even acceptable.

What Mr. Kemp's has produced is a low-key version of the play with race and stereotypes seen in much American art in recent years. He owes a debt to other artists, Yinka Shonibare among them, but comes through with something of his own. And as if to keep things buoyant he includes a mini-installation within the show. The underside of a shelf holding photographs is lined with stick-on plastic googly eyes, which are reflected in a mirror on the floor. Staring upward, they are like a cartoon surveillance device, putting art and viewer alike under scrutiny.

- -

Arnold J. Kemp at ESP
Art in America Review, May 1998, by Amy Berk

In the two rooms that constitute this small space in the Mission District, Kemp presents his recent (all 1998) graphite drawings of "traditional" African imagery on mylar.

Sets of heavily rendered drawings in the first room with titles such as Untitled (Ceremonial Cup) and Untitled (Mask) are pinned to the wall in rows of two with five representatives of the same sculptural form in each row. The differences between the images occur in the undulating lines, transience of shadows and plays on patterning. These deviations invite consideration of the complexity that lies beyond the clichéd Africaness and infuse a fugitive quality into the drawings which makes them seem oddly alive. Everything in this show demands close scrutiny such as the two "ethnic" print curtains in taupes and blues that adorn the windows, creating an intimate setting. On closer inspection carefully camouflaged stick on eyes emerge from these homely devices radiating a sense of unease, of distance, of being watched - the viewer becomes the viewed, the spectator, the spectacle, the colonizer the colonized.

The long wall of the second gallery room houses looser, freer, less heavily rendered drawings incorporating splotches of color and rhinestones. In this series, the forms are delineated but not filled in, half-drawn masks are oftentimes coupled with colored blotches where vines sometimes grow, and King cobras and others serve as audience, subjects and foils. All of these elusive totems float in the ether of the barely perceptible mylar. The rhinestones, eyeing you as you wander, puncture and punctuate the sober forms.

Across from these lyrical drawings, a small photograph of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz, their three daughters and Mohammed Ali, Untitled (African-American Family) hangs. The image of Shabazz is weighted down with the addition of collaged African sculptural forms sitting on her lap. In addition to the work on the walls, a zine (Spirit and Image), produced by Kemp to accompany the exhibition, includes a fictional interview with himself, an article about an exhibition of Arman’s collection of African antiquities and various poems. All of this overloaded information concretely literalizes the exhibition serving to close instead of widen possible understandings.

Kemp uses charged icons to problematize issues of exoticism, otherness and authenticity. He copes with the question of what is real and what is artifice through obsessive copying and in so doing, unmasks the impossibility of truthful representation.