We live, like it or not, in an age of mix-and-match in which all the world’s cultures are colliding. Marcus Kenney’s “Romance 2020” collages and sculptures, at Marcia Wood Gallery through New Year’s Day, address the problem head on (sometimes with real deer heads).
At the same time that he asks (in his own words), “How can I mix all of these cultures together?,” Kenney follows a stated goal of being not a male artist or a white artist or a regional artist, but an American artist. The resulting mash-up is some of the smartest, strangest, most provocatively funny and lovely work you are likely to see this season. (At right: “Animals Strike Poses.”)
The overall profusion of masks, fabrics and singularly glitzy bling recalls Kenney’s roots in Louisiana’s Mardi Gras as much as it reminds us of Surrealism’s appropriation of the primitive as a royal road to the unconscious. Kenney values his own unconscious choices, but the overall plan of these bauble-bedecked pieces of taxidermy and Green-Stamp-background archetypal figures is quite deliberate.
Kenney is out to explore the psychic depths of 21st-century America in such works as “Bubba Demigod” (left), named after a legendary neighborhood personality whom he encountered on an exploratory walk through his current hometown of Savannah. This downhome-demigod deer looks like an homage to arts and crafts in its knitted ear coverings and halo of paintbrushes and paint dishes, but that fails to account for the magic-looking staff supported by its impressively decorated rack of antlers.
In fact, it may be impossible to account for all the elements in any of these pieces, though some of the strategies can be identified.
Most of the pieces that start from reclaimed taxidermy are given names based on rearranged Native American syllables: “Natcheketi” (right), “Rocaomorah,” “Fuquawah.” The beadwork, though, tends to be from the middle class of the 1950s or earlier, however much it may have been rearranged into deer headdresses. Feathers, in one case, recall the mid-20th-century ethnic stereotypes that are faithfully undercut by imitation in the adjacent collage works on canvas.
In fact, Kenney’s implied homage to Native American practices in the sculptures is sometimes replaced in the collages by merciless satire of the dominant culture’s mythologies: a bloody-mouthed Abe Lincoln with a beard made from cut-up currency in the collage “Blood Suckin Vampire” gives new meaning to the term “dead presidents” for paper money.
Few of these works are so unequivocally negative as that, however. Most are hauntingly elusive, presenting ritually garbed figures such as the robot-like kachina dancer posed against a backdrop of cash register tapes in “Everyman Against Himself.”
All in all, the meanings stay multiple throughout this exhibition. The cut-up actual dollar bills and the sneakers bearing printed images of hundred-dollar Benjamins that hang from the skull-adorned reclaimed (and perhaps once obliviously racist) mask of “Almighty” might be read in many ways. In fact, how viewers interpret the piece will tell the viewers much about themselves, if they will give the question a small amount of thought.
Regardless of what meanings are drawn, this show is a visual and conceptual stunner. The garfish that form facial appendages to the already spectacular ram head of “KicKitic” seize our attention even if they have no meaning other than gorgeous spectacle.
The range of energetic imagery and imaginative vision in “Romance 2020” is so immense that hours of viewing would fail to exhaust it, though it might well exhaust the viewer. It’s better to let the sheer thematic ambition and visual excess wash over you and speak to your own unconscious, in much the way it emerged from the artist’s own intuitive recollections of global imagery combined with an unspoken sense of what felt particularly right.