A Horse is a Horse Unless of Course: An Interview with Paul Kenneth
Paul Kenneth is a trickster, a painter, and that theatre kid we all think we know.
Barn-yard-styled with room to roam, UIUC’s South Studios have fostered a friendship with a painter named Paul. The first adjective I would use to express my side of our MFA rapport is: curious. Paul's stance towards and account of his paintings have remained hidden over the past two years. (With any intentionality of such inscrutability being the only point, or far beyond it.) His marksmanship and gestures are unmistakable, making a case for completeness contained within each pass of brush or pencil.
In discussion with Paul, we, the MFA students in the Studio Program, jostle for answers only to receive charades. Paul's responses over the years have taught me to release the burden of working to decipher a script from off-the-cuff gags that point away from judgment. Engaging with Paul's work is like deciding to go to a theatre, sit down, suspend, and stay; you're either down for the ride, or you're not. Those who decide to allow his work to take the reins enter a world of sensations that squish, flutter, tempt, resist, grip, and surrender the eye across, and beyond the canvas- but to where? Paul doesn't want to know. It's up to you to take his distance as a modification or an occasion to ramble.
- Emmaly Crimmel
“It stood towering above me, a mountain of muscle and flesh. My animal fear subsided as the beast gave a slow nod and a wink. With its eyes, it spoke to me a story without uttering a sound and in a language without words. This is that story.” - P. Kenneth, Masters of Fine Arts Exhibition 2021, The Krannert Museum
Sydney Vize: Your statement on the MFA website ends with “with [the horse’s] eyes, it spoke to me a story without uttering a sound and in a language without words. This is that story.” How specific is the story that you want viewers to create with this installation?
PK: I want that story to be specifically different for each viewer.
Emmaly Crimmel: Do the mediums you use have a story embedded within the material? For example, what does canvas or paint narratively hold compared to paper or clay, etc.?
PK: Some stories live in the materials, but they were not always there. The stories in the materials are born from the history of my touch. In this way, I am the ghost that haunts each artwork. My ability/inability to transform the material binds the narrative. By altering the medium, I give new meaning to the same story.
EC: I'm curious if there was an intent to make horses synonymous with painting in your practice? If we focused attention on the similarity between the history of the domestication of horses and the history of painting in the Western world, connections could be made.
The horses, for me, rival the presence of the painting. Does this rivalry make the horses heroic or a potential ultimatum?
PK: When I first began to explore the subject of the horse I was thinking a lot about the prehistoric history of painting. I cannot help but wonder what it was like for those first humans who recreated their visual experience of the horse through pictographs and hieroglyphs. I am more interested in how the horse has been depicted over time across the entire world in all mediums. To reduce the conversation of the horse to painting in the Western World would be like, well, beating a dead horse.
This sense of rivalry is something that I experienced while making these pieces. It created a strange tension between me and the horse where I often didn’t feel in control of what was happening. No matter how much influence I have over the work, I believe the horse will always have the final say.
SV: What is the relationship between the language you’re using in your installation (titles and otherwise) and your installation choices with your paintings and sculptures? There seems to me to be a real abundance in your object install and some scarcity with how you’re using language.
PK: Language is innately flawed. Idioms have a marvelous way of highlighting the inadequacy that comes from verbal and written communication. These clusters of words that have an agreed-upon meaning become meaningless to the outsider. My use of titles for this work is an attempt to play with words while also demonstrating their lack of power to define the thing they name.
Abigail Holcombe: The type on the plaques accompanying your work are hand-drawn, what led you to this decision?
PK: Exploring my physical touch and how it reveals itself to the viewer is instrumental to my artistic practice. When the installation process was complete I was provided with a printout of my labels to review. They felt cold and lacked the beautiful imperfections that result from human touch. I took this as an opportunity to show another form of touch. Through graphite rubbings, I was able to make labels that could coexist with the horses. I find that these types of considerations can slow the reading of the work. The more time I can get the viewer to spend with my creations the more they will notice and experience.
SV: I feel a lot of levity in your installation with only a few potential hints of malice. Some of that malice detection could come from having read your previous writing related to this project, but particular moments of horse abstraction and the hidden elements of your installation also get me there.
PK: I was raised by a family that used levity to cope with the worst possible circumstances. It is in my DNA and something that I can never escape. To laugh in the face of horror is a magical way of denying power to that terrible thing. Levity gives me the ability to make it through another day. If I can provide my viewers with a fraction of that magic then nothing else matters.
AH: I’m loving the horse-shaped shelves, particularly the shadows which turn the gaze of the horse shelves toward the other works. I’m curious how you are thinking about the relationship between the horses in shelf form and the horses in drawn and painted form?
PK: I arrived at the horse-shaped shelves rather late in the creation of this body of work. They were born out of necessity but have become something hard to define. As my exploration of the drawn and painted horse progressed I became increasingly curious as to what these horses would look like if pulled from the paper or canvas. This curiosity led me to start squishing out polymer clay horse heads as a pre-bedtime ritual. The stampede of these little horses intensified and I soon became overrun with sandwich bags full of polymer ponies. When their forms began conversing with their two-dimensional relatives I knew their significance transcended idle play. After testing different display methods for these miniatures, I found that the only logical display solution was to build horse shelves. I think of these shelves like a lasso with enough slack to allow the viewer to pull away from the wall only to be roped back in. While the material form is solid, the visual form undulates between sculpture and drawing. This active play is key in understanding my relationship with the horse. The relationship that the horses have amongst themselves is open for the viewer to determine.
AH: The small clay horses on top of the lower shelf are assembled in either couples or small clusters, it seems these horses are directly engaging with one another or represent some kind of a unit/formation of relationships. What were you thinking about when placing the small clay horses?
PK: As odd as it may seem, I didn’t have to think at all when placing the horses. I simply pulled up a chair and played with them for hours. Over time they began to assemble themselves and developed relationships that even surprised me.
EC: In this year-long body of work, can you locate an origin horse and a final horse? Do these horses share the same character pool you extract from or do they exist on some evolutionary-like timeline?
PK: The original horse has since been buried in a shallow grave of paint. The final horse will only be revealed after my death. A character pool suggests a limited extractable area. I have not experienced this type of limitation as of yet. If there is a location of extraction it would be more like a river or tide. The horses show evolutionary traits but not in the Darwinian sense. Their evolution is self-determined. If the horse wants a big booty, so it shall be.
EC: Each horse undergoes a visual suppression of its realization through limited information or abstracted, unfinished borders. Is this a way to tame or break the horse motif into something you can manipulate and control? Or is this strategy intended for you to allow the horse to have free range on the paper or canvas?
PK: I do not have any desire to control or tame the horse. The modes of abstraction are a strategy for alternate realizations of form. The limitations are in place to reign in my potential for control. In this way, the suggestion of something left unseen awaits discovery by the viewer in an imaginary realm.
EC: Are there horses your viewer can’t see?
PK: Yes. Those are the horses that you have to watch out for.
Paul Kenneth was born in Minnesota, he received his BFA in Painting from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago,
and an MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
This interview was conducted by Emmaly Crimmel, Abigail Holcombe, and Sydney Vize, MFA students at The School of Art+Design, UIUC.