Review: “Underneath the Hope”

Savannah based artist Marcus Kenney has long created whimsical painting-collages that weave an assortment of items — supermarket green stamps, greeting cards, postage stamps and cigar labels — into retro landscapes. His works use objects that are familiar, but craft them into something entirely new. He continues that project, but kicks it up a notch or two, in his latest exhibition. In his fifth solo show at Castleberry Hill’s Marcia Wood Gallery “Underneath the Hope” the artist moves, in more ways than one, off-the-wall, with a wickedly odd body of work incorporating photography, sculpture and those collaged paintings.

Kenney’s work evokes elements of craft, folk art, mysticism and assemblage to create something otherworldly: an imagined universe as vivid — while you are in it — as a stage play or the artifacts of some lost tribe on view in a natural history museum.

The show is populated with fantastic objects, customs and creatures. A boat paddle is swathed in twine and fabric to render something familiar, strange.

Though fabric, rope and string are often used in this exhibition, other materials are as odd as Kenney’s method: taxidermy, hair, feathers, bone and fur all play a part in tricking out his objects in crazy new garb. His creatures — which include repurposed dolls, taxidermied animals and some impossible to identify figures — look held together with pins and buttons, bits of fabric, pipe cleaners and, of course, imagination.

Considering the artist’s own Louisiana origins, it’s hard not to see in his outlandishly repurposed materials something similar to the homegrown pageantry of Mardi Gras Indians, themselves informed by the pageantry of Native Americans. Further afield, Kenney’s work can suggest the colorful paint and decoration of certain African tribes that form their festive ornamentation from materials at hand. Kenney takes manufactured items like buttons or baby dolls and recasts them as players in an utterly idiosyncratic and personal drama.

A work in the gallery’s first room sets the tone for the exhibit with its strange, voodoo ambiance. “The Republick” is a skull crafted from paper plunked onto a carved wooden stand and decorated with gold costume jewelry.

Many of such works in “Underneath the Hope” seem to engage in shrine-building and memento-making. They suggest effigies to belief systems, whether spiritual, artistic or delusional. For that reason it’s hard not to think Kenney is referencing the similar flights of fantasy of certain folk artists who also transform everyday materials in such imaginative and excessive fashion. In “Underneath the Hope” a baby doll painted silver wears an Xacto blade necklace and a child’s plastic riding horse is decorated with fur anklets and a glitter mane. It’s a world created from refuse, but more beautiful and imaginative than the original.

In “small creature” some ambiguous critter with a long red tail and a body composed of fabric, buttons and straight pins is a hybrid of nature and the imagination.

Even animals whose contours are familiar become utterly strange once they have been gussied up in Kenney’s new garb. “St. Laree Ruzzell” is a taxidermied deer’s head that has been ornamented with a crocheted mask, decorated with fishing lure earrings and prettied up with fabric and hair.Masks of some kind are a recurring theme in the show. In his black and white photographs people with wild hair sport colorful masks superimposed onto the image, that obscure their faces.

Perhaps the funniest piece in the show — it’s hard to imagine the artist creating these works without laughing — is a wolf turned into Little Red Riding Hood in a work called “Anna Christ.” The taxidermied wolf’s mouth is open, its teeth bared in a vicious snarl. But ornamenting his ears are red gingham coozies and he wears a pretty red headdress and blond coils of hair. There is something at once comical and creepy in such juxtapositions which blend animal and human, a suggestion of living alongside the certainty of death.

Kenney has created a wacky and weird border land that uses ornamentation, decoration and masks to play with our perception. For those willing to take the journey, it’s a beguiling alternate universe.

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