It almost seems wrong to say that Marcus Kenney draws heavily on his rural roots and Southern culture in his photographs, paintings and sculptures. The Louisiana native, now based in Savannah, Ga., offers work that is very much an extension of himself, not the product of an assumed esthetic meant to appeal to connoisseurs of the vernacular.
In his recent show “Underneath the Hope” (all works 2012), Kenney brewed a concoction of mystery and magic, but the air was not heavy with portent. His art is, in a word, fun. Yes, he touches on issues of race and politics, and he toys with taboos and transgressions, but his works are so exuberant and even-handed in their treatment that they don’t risk didacticism.
Kenney is a voracious consumer of materials and styles. Skulls are covered with sequins or bling. Tatty vintage taxidermy specimens are recycled into majestic otherworldly creatures. Ordinary items receive extraordinary adornments. Blithe dualism is the method of his alchemy.
Greeting visitors at the door was Sebastian, a maniacally macabre, artificially masked raccoon hanging upside down, an arrow piercing its side. With its legs bound with scraps of fabric, dollar bills stuffed into its mouth, Pippi Longstocking braids dangling from its head and an American flag cape descending from its neck, it evokes merriment as much as martyrdom.
A mounted deer head has a commanding presence. Titled St. Laree Ruzzell, it’s embellished with such items as fishing lures, rope, fur and synthetic blond hair. Its antlers are wrapped in strips of fabric, its face covered in a knitted ski mask.
Kenney’s conflation of references has a leveling effect. A Ronald McDonald doll, for example, hangs on a wall alongside a number of talismanic objects and shamanistic masks incorporating things like cigarette butts and nail polish. Timeline #11, a metal pail crammed with tools and paintbrushes, recalls Jasper Johns’s Painted Bronze (Savarin).
Kenney, 40, has long been known for his collage paintings, which here seemed at once a part of and apart from his assemblages. Take the Hint features a field of gold cigar labels and a deer atop a mountain; Modern Man has tesseralike squares with painted palm trees and flying pterodactyls. Three Girls, like many of his canvases, is populated by Henry Darger-esque nymphets. While appealing, the paintings don’t have the same charge as the more potent sculptures.
Elements of the carnivalesque appear in black-and-white photographs of Kenney’s wife, kids and neighbors. Brightly colored masks are collaged onto several of the images. In another, the artist’s barefoot young son is seen through the flames of a fire, lending the scene an air of ceremony or ritual.
Kenney’s rural upbringing and the rich cultural traditions of the Deep South no doubt feed his fertile imagination. His work may seem cryptic, but it’s not. Removing the mask won’t reveal some elusive truth. Just enjoy the complexity.
Photo: View of Marcus Kenney’s exhibition “Underneath the Hope,” 2012, at Marcia Wood