Arnold J. Kemp’s works revolve around masks at Chicago exhibition –


More than 15 years ago, Chicago-based artist Arnold J. Kemp bought a rubber mask bearing the face of Fred Flintstone from a street vendor in downtown New York on Halloween night. Years later, Kemp would rediscover the mask in his studio, and it would eventually become a staple of his artistic practice. His 2016 sculpture Headless shows the cartoon character’s hollow head – with lazy eyes and bulbous face – painted silver and mounted on a metal stake. “I tend to collect things and just have a feeling that I’ll use them in a work someday,” he said.

Since the 1990s, Kemp has been obsessed with masks and other modes of disguise, exploiting the sentiment that “masking can actually be much more revealing than expected,” said Dieter Roelstraete, the curator of Kemp’s current exhibition at the Neubauer Collegium. for Culture and Society at the University of Chicago.

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Kemp’s practice has long explored themes around identity, stereotypes, and general ideas of “likeness,” all fueled by the disparate objects he collected from the various places he lived: San Francisco, Oregon, New York, Richmond and Chicago, where he moved. in 2016 to become Dean of Graduate Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

A 2021 exhibition at the JOAN gallery in Los Angeles, titled “False Hydras,” was based on a series of encounters in which he was mistaken for another writer with whom he shares a name. For the project, Kemp collected copies of Arnold Kemp’s other tome from 1972 Eat me, I’m the savior, which tells the story of a young black revolutionary, and placed them indiscriminately in the crevices of a sleek mid-century chair. For a series made in the early 2000s, he photographed himself wearing a fake Ku Klux Klan balaclava made from fabrics inspired by West African textiles.

“We always move without masks. People call it code-switching now,” Kemp said. ART news in an interview, adding that his works interrogate the collective changes of “people looking alike, acting alike, and a very particular male gender of this type of cloning”. With materials often coming to him through chance encounters, Kemp says it begs the question of whether the archetypes he explores are “found or created and cultivated.”

In “Less Like an Object and More Like the Weather,” on view through April 10, the Flintstone mask reappears, seen in two large-scale photographs from the 2019 “Funny House (Speech Acts)” series that are mounted facing each other at the entrance to the gallery. Across the dark wood paneled room is a meticulous collection of 500 individually sculpted ceramic masks, neatly arranged on a makeshift stage that spans nearly 20 feet and rises inches off the floor. .

In the pair of photographs, Flintstone’s age-weathered mask folds over Kemp’s own ball fist, forming a macabre expression. Here, as with previous work, Kemp uses this object as a proxy to explore larger tropes of a bygone era. Fred Flintstone, who debuted on ABC in 1960, is part of a long line of male comedic characters with a jingoistic edge – first popularized in Jackie Gleason with his two shows in the 1950s and moving on to Archie Bunker in All in the family, George Jetson and Homer Simpson. Kemp describes the archetype as “the bigoted common man we’re supposed to find funny”. But, Kemp warned, it “can be very dangerous.”

For Kemp, the mask in each photograph represents an obstacle to speech by blocking its master’s ability to verbalize something disturbing. “The hand does not passively wear the mask,” he said. “It’s actually moving him around, like he’s trying to speak through him or trying to say something difficult. There’s a loss of language, and it almost ends up like some kind of sign language .

Associating the mask with his own black hand, Kemp said, is a way to subvert expectations the viewer may have of different “characters the black artist might inhabit.”

“Some of its power surely derives from the slightly stoic and restrained vibe of the work’s presence in the gallery,” Roelstraete said. He and Kemp worked together for several months to compose the exhibition, which adopts a minimal layout, with photographs leaning against the walls and installations near the ground floor, in an overall ornate space.

“I wanted to engage the floor space of the gallery,” Kemp said. “What can be hung on the walls of the space is very limited. Photographs have always had a sculptural feel to me.

Sculptural installation in the gallery

Arnold Kemp, watch the sun2021.
Robert Chase Heishman

Across the room, where the other focal point of the show is, is a collection of handmade ceramics that Kemp produced in the style of domino masks, which only cover the eyes. The installation, titled watch the sun (2021), shows glossy versions of these face coverings, each rendered coarse by Kemp’s fingerprints and painted in various cool hues – purple, blue, green.

Gallery photography

Arnold Kemp, Funny House (speech acts)2019.

For Kemp, the ceramic masks give the effect of a personified body, giving the viewer the impression of being observed.

“There are all these eyes in the exhibit that are actually looking at the viewer,” Kemp said. “You’re not really sure what you’re looking at, you see the scene and you see the colors, but it’s not really in focus until you’re almost overhead.”

“Less Like an Object and More Like the Weather” takes its title from what composer John Cage said when asked to describe his longtime collaboration with choreographer Merce Cunningham. Cage compared their artistic partnership and its fluid nature to weather, explaining, “It’s less like an object than it is like weather because in an object you can tell where the boundaries are, but with weather it’s impossible to tell when something starts. or ends. Kemp said his show was inspired by that quality of limitlessness that Cage was talking about.

Kemp’s interest in masks, or anything that might cover his face, long predates the pandemic, and Covid-related masking was not on Kemp’s mind when making this exhibit. Roelstraete, however, sees some correlations.

“Looking at the ceramic ‘masks,’ you kind of remember the many conflicting meanings of masking,” he said. “You’re tempted to start thinking about the dialectic of watching and being watched, and how the human affront of two years of covid-driven restraints and restrictions may have something to do with the fact that we don’t cannot quite be seen or read as before.

There are only a few works on display in the exhibition, and Kemp said that, much like Cage, a visitor ends up becoming part of the installation: “He needs the viewer to complete the meaning,” did he declare.


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