Interview with Kenny Cole

As we begin our new cycle of A POSSIBLE PRACTICE, we welcome our nine featured artists to reflect on how the world keeps ending, and the world goes on. In this series of interviews, we’ll discover more about each artist’s work, their practices, and what it means to be making art during this time of intense global change. We are pleased to kick off this series with Kenny Cole. Kenny Cole is an artist who has been living and working in Maine since the mid-90’s. His paintings combine text, image, and a shared visual language to explore personal and collective histories of apocalypse. 

When we selected Franny Choi’s poem “The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On” in December 2019, we could not have envisioned the ways we would each be asked to accept new levels of grief and apocalypse into our daily lives. What initially drew you to this poem?

The poem seemed custom made for my work, which has explored apocalyptic themes often. I also like the historic referencing in the poem. I have always felt this way, the way that the poem expresses how the apocalypse is never ending and began at the beginning. I created a large installation of canvases in 2014 whose title “Parabellum” came from a Roman treatise on war. From that beginning the piece represented the work of a fictional artist/civil war veteran and spoke to the continuing false narrative of weapons technology and development as keeping future peace.

How has your understanding of the poem changed since then?

We are currently in the midst of a pandemic. I am also currently in the midst of a body of work that I was hoping to show in December 2020. This work began as a variation on previous work that had considered social changes that have been evolving since Trump took office. I had been thinking about how this work would be on exhibit after the 2020 election and whether I would need to anticipate a new administration or a continuation of the current administration. I have been rendering mostly animals acting out human activities. Now in the midst of this pandemic I have decided to continue rendering animals acting out human activities, but see things differently. Now I see a complete tension between the human and animal worlds. It is a view larger than national politics. It is now about a greater existential struggle as a species within a mute parallel world that we thought we had left behind thanks to the promise of technology.

Choi’s poem too is existential, but its timelessness now takes on a new meaning. Moving through our current crisis many of us can see the issues that we had addressed in the past coming to the fore in an immediate way. Choi’s backwards/forwards/cyclical nonlinear vision of trauma and violence as human activity is a big vision that many of us feel can now be understood by many more than before.

What elements / images / phrases strike you most now?

There are many that resonate differently now as we start to view aspects of our technological development in a new light in relation to a pandemic. For example: “of my mother unsticking herself from her mother’s grave as the plane barreled down the runway” speaks to the trauma of migration for all of us now. “It ended, and we woke up and ordered Greek coffees, drew the hot liquid through our teeth, as everywhere, the apocalypse rumbled, the apocalypse remembered, our dear, beloved apocalypse—it drifted slowly from the trees all around us, so loud we stopped hearing it.” to me speaks to the current phenomenon of how some are adversely affected or dying while others can’t understand what all the fuss is about.

What are you planning to create for this cycle?

For the most part it will be gouache on paper. I’m working in this medium both large, medium, and small. I fold old motifs in with new motifs that get cycled in to create imagery that can pick up on the current zeitgeist, while not losing my personal continuum. Characters, animals, technology, weaponry caves, and geological strata are just a few of the motifs that seem to maintain status within my oeuvre.

How does your work relate to the themes in “The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On”?

This poem touches on several familiar historic motifs of injustice and structural violence. Some that I have dealt with in my work are: war in the Mideast, American slavery, oil production/consumption, abortion, depleted uranium, airplanes, Columbus, and poisoned ground water, to name a few.

Your work often engages with the collective visual history of the United States—political figures, Santa Claus, The Statue of Liberty—and places these characters in strange new contexts. What sources (books, artwork, newspapers, etc.) inspire / drive your work?

Often my inspiration comes from news sources, which then might lead me to do further reading or internet research. Other times I find inspiration simply in the world that I see around me. In 2002 I acquired a 1966 encyclopedia set that I periodically page through for both information and imagery. I like to look back and read and see things that might be out of date or politically incorrect… it gives a great perspective.

Do the ideas for these pieces come to you fully formed, or do they evolve as you begin to work on each piece?

Definitely both! Generally the parts and pieces come to me fully formed, but there is also a long term process of shuffling the parts and pieces together in different combinations or compositions over years, which in turn can sometimes create new paradigms. This shuffling/evolution process happens within a piece more often only when I paint or draw early in the morning. I typically try to complete a small piece early in the morning before heading out to work. I’m most creatively free in this morning session and often see it as an opportunity to let ideas form within the process of simply pushing paint around. Other times I get ideas fully formed and then simply execute them. I find that sometimes when I do this.

Your paintings sometimes incorporate text. What is your philosophy regarding the interplay of text and image on the canvas?

I got heavy into text in the fall of 2008, just before Obama was elected. I felt the zeitgeist of his impending election would bring on a wave of harsh crazed blow back along the lines of irrational conspiracy laden ranting and created stark hand rendered text drawings/paintings on paper that filled the picture plane with sans serif block letters. Looking back even to the 80s though I see that it was always there, though not as prominently as the effort that began in 2008, in which text was sometimes the exclusive image on a white background. In this respect text became the image, and I never really modified it in a way in which it might be rendered as opaque and unreadable abstract shapes say, rather, my rule was that it would always be transparent, or clear and readable for what it was: language, a vehicle for expressing thoughts and communication. However it would also fall under the jurisdiction of picture plane rules, which meant that the “right edge of text” would be abruptly cut off when it ran into the edge of the picture plane, without proper hyphenation for example. This enabled the kind of happy accidents that the surrealists loved, both language wise and visual wise, where a word, say, cut in parts becomes two new words with new meaning or maybe a bunch of “Os” say, end up aligning for a striking visual effect. Beyond these occurrences, is my text’s content which is of equal concern.

As with the imagery my text often comes from the same sources. On a few occasions I invent or write my own texts, as in my 2008 work which was based on my interpretation of that current zeitgeist, for example. Otherwise it may be lifted from the news/internet, my old encyclopedias, or the bible. The bible has been a source I go to a lot. I’m not a practicing Christian, but I was raised Catholic. I had never really read the bible and only started referencing it later in life, mainly for curiosity in order to maybe understand extremist right wing culture. I’ve found a lot of its language to be highly cathartic and resonant to the dramas of contemporary life and larger environmental, social, and political issues. I never reference the chapter/verse aspects of biblical text, rather I prefer to let the words or phrases themselves resonate on their own in context to the imagery that I place them in. I primarily use The New English Bible, a version with very contemporary readability, that I first acquired in art school from a course I took that studied the bible from a purely academic perspective.

How have the intensities of climate change, political polarization, and pandemic impacted your work and/or practice?

I think about issues all the time and go through various phases. Sometimes I react strongly and create a major piece or body of work around one issue and other times I try to give myself a rest and just create loose work that free associates with my current feelings or ongoing motifs. But none of these things are really going away and now, in the heat of this pandemic, I feel a growing need to address things that are immediate. So in some ways nothing has changed, in that I have always developed motifs and bodies of work over the years that have touched upon structural violence and thus can reference these ideas and motifs for our current crisis, which really is just illuminating and exposing old problems.

The main impact for all visual artists now is the lack of institutional support due to venue closures. Typically art shows, exhibits and events are planned years in advance, so if things settle out, planned events might still happen. I have shows planned for August and December 2020 and a show I will be curating for 2021, so if all goes well I will not be impacted. Meanwhile I had a show in Bangor in March that got closed down mid-way during its scheduled time due to the city’s lock down. And it is really important and valuable to be able to see art being made right now as this pandemic is unfolding. In this respect, I have jumped at opportunities like this one to participate in a real time consideration of issues within our current context that takes its lead from an artivist perspective. The impact or shift has been to go online with creative and active projects. Alternatively, I have also begun to consider placing art in the greater environment, which I have dabbled a bit with in the past, in the form of wheat pasting screen printed texts.

How does your practice help you process what is happening in our culture?

One aspect of hand rendering text is that I read and reread the text many times in order to render it. This is very therapeutic and cathartic and helps me to retain concepts, issues and ideas. I find with my imagery and in particular with my morning practice I can take a motif, element, or concept and in that short time I have to create the piece, think about things, look on the internet, page through the bible or encyclopedias, and then as the clock is ticking and I’m running out of time to paint, start brushing on gouache and letting things appear, tap a bit into my own personal zeitgeist or unconscious and start to produce an image, that might be a bit different from my original intention, but that expresses my mixed up thoughts about the world.

How do you envision it helping others?

I’ve tried to reach out in the past to venues or organizations that are activist and I have been lucky to have met people and activists that I have been able to collaborated with. The most basic venue for visual art typically is an exhibition, which tends to be limited in terms of who it reaches, but nonetheless is an ideal scenario for presenting work in a format where careful in place contemplation can occur. I think art in itself is a great vehicle to help us all process the intensities and calamities that are currently and have been historically upon us.

[I]t is really important and valuable to be able to see art being made right now as this pandemic is unfolding […] to participate in a real time consideration of issues within our current context that takes its lead from an artivist perspective.

What role does personal / collective history play in your work?

I do draw from my own limited personal history: a white male coming of age in the post draft/disco/punk era, raised in suburbia and basically responsible for most of the death and destruction wreaked upon our battered planet! We/I have to continue to act and modify our/my behavior. I am interested in changing myself and creating art that might explore new roles and dredge up old roles/motifs to be analyzed, prodded, poked, made fun of, and reassessed. So most of my practice is somewhat inward/outward reflecting.

Who is one of the most influential people in your biological or chosen family lineage?

That’s an interesting question that I’ve probably never really considered! I might approach this by answering it negatively! I recently discovered an awful person in my family tree who beat his wife to the point where he was driven out of town with an effigy hung as a warning to never return! I’ve always been fascinated with my genealogy and had heard family stories about this woman/victim, who was my great grandmother on my mother’s mother’s side, but discovering this newspaper article with a sketch of the effigy really brought me great shame and sadness. I can now see how succeeding generations have managed to improve their lot, but it really did cast a pall and hindrance over a few successive branches. For me, it helps me to understand some of the low grade darkness that might exist in a person’s generational psyche and how possibly art can be a therapeutic recovery or witness from violence of all forms. 

How does their influence appear in your work?

My direct connection to this person would be through my mother and her mother, my Nana. My Nana was always an incredibly cheerful and supportive person to all of her grandchildren. To me, she recognized my interest in art as a special vocation. She in turn had a bad marriage and I always knew my mother had a tough upbringing. My father, on the other hand, was a good man and my upbringing stable and happy. I feel that I had a very positive role model in my father in how to live as a healthy male, yet this buried injustice deep in the family tree could only give me a sense that within our not too distant past, men could get away with murder and still do. Looking back on my artistic development I can see a trend toward greater self reflection, explorations into exposing injustice, and narratives that include sociological, cultural male motifs acting out existential dramas.

Who / what is currently inspiring you locally?

The Union of Maine Visual Artists have been creating a quarterly journal that explores new themes each quarter. I have contributed images and interviews that I periodically conduct. The depth and thoughtfulness is astounding. I’m also discovering other local artists, some new to the scene via Instagram, which gives me great hope for new and fresh ideas and approaches to art making here in Maine.

Another wonderful thing that has been a kind of silver lining to the local art scene during this current pandemic is the show up now at BUOY in Kittery. It is their nonjudgemental open call to all and anyone to submit work to their annual ARTpm exhibition. Each year is bigger than the last with this year, the 11th, is showcasing 350 artists. The show got hung just before the lock down took effect and the opening was cancelled. Since then no one has seen the show in person, but the gallery director has been posting images, listing each artwork’s info and price. In some ways this has been more compelling than going to see the show. With so many pieces and a gradual inventory playing out on Instagram, one can check in and study and learn about each artist as they get revealed. It was scheduled to run through April, but the feeling is that it will continue beyond.

What are you listening to / reading / looking at right now?

Unfortunately, I have been a news junkie during this pandemic, fascinated by both the science and the politics of Covid-19. I read the news a lot, and if I post an article on social media I always read the article completely first. I generally work in a quiet studio, but have been listening to some of the White House and Maine press conferences now while working in the studio. I also always try to have an actual book to read regularly and specifically seek out artist biographies! I’m not quite halfway through Impressionist Quartet by Jeffrey Meyers, a biography of Manet and Morisot, and Degas and Cassatt. I’m digging Manet’s palette, in which black plays a major role, all the top hats and some of his great political canvases.

What is one important thing you’ve done for your creative practice / general nourishment lately?

I have to say this project of yours! To take the time and think and write about my work and my process is a huge opportunity and an important gathering of loose activities into a moment of coherence, perspective, and meaning. That your particular theme, in a way anticipated our current crisis, is an invaluable link to before, during, and after. I can feel the confusion, bottled up anxieties, and desire for direction smoothing out as I gather my thoughts and write. I hope people will identify and feel nourished alongside us.

Describe your practice space.

I love my studio! It consists of a 34’ x 26’ barn attached to my house, so I can walk out to it anytime I am home and even view it through the half glass door in our kitchen. It has four large north facing windows and a 9’+ ceiling height. There is a one acre field behind it, so in the winter when there is snow cover, the bright ambient light floods the space. I’ve had this space since moving to Maine in the mid 90’s, but have only been able to use it in its fully finished form since about 2007, due to the costs and difficulties of converting it from a raw space to an insulated and heated finished space. 

What wise words do you carry with you into your practice?

Never be self critical in the studio!

What is an important message you’ve recently received?

In an Instagram comment recently: “I really like this one kenny❤️” …this comment spurred me on to write a couple paragraph’s worth of thoughtful responses. I do not generally get a lot of comments on my Instagram, so when they do happen it means a lot!

What is one question you wish we’d asked? (And answer it.)

What do you wish for the future of your art going forward in this time of pandemic?

I hope opportunities increase rather than diminish and we all discover brand new ways to present and have art experiences. ✽

After winning a Charles Burchfield scholarship in 1976, Kenny Cole studied drawing at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, earning a B.F.A. in 1981. Upon graduation he was confronted with a burgeoning neo-expressionist art scene in New York City’s East Village, thus his work adopted an edgy, graphic, second-wave graffiti-like sensibility. He joined the planning committee of City Without Walls Gallery in 1983 and exhibited extensively in alternative spaces in and around New York City until moving to Maine in 1994. Here he has continued to exhibit in alternative spaces, has helped organize political art actions with the Union of Maine Visual Artists and served for 10 years on the board of directors at Waterfall Arts in Belfast. Cole was awarded the Spring Monhegan Island Artists Residency in 2012 and an Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation Grant in 2017. He will be showing new large gouache paintings on paper in December 2020 at Perimeter Gallery in Belfast, Maine.


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