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Thursday 5 May 2011

Predominantly Political Art? Peter Kennard, At Earth, Raven Row, London

Review by Kara Magid, a candidate for the MA in Art History at Richmond, The American International University in London.

Painters George Shaw and Karla Black, sculptor Martin Boyce and video artist Hilary Lloyd are shortlisted for this year’s Turner prize, to be held at Baltic, Gateshead. Hilary Lloyd is nominated for an exhibition at Raven Row gallery in London, which she filled with video projections that also became, along with their AV equipment, a sculptural installation. Raven Row is a relatively new non-profit contemporary art space in Spitalfields. Their latest show, Peter Kennard’s At Earth is a captivating look at Kennard’s practice of forty years through photomontages, paintings, and new digital images made with Tarek Salhany.

The interior of the gallery itself is designed in a way that is minimal yet intricate. The walls and staircases are entirely white although there are vine patterned sculptures that protrude from the walls giving the gallery’s interior some character. Due to the whiteness of the building’s interior, visitors are encountered with a quiet hush once they step inside. All is calm and the first image one is struck with is of a photomontage that combines a dazzling depiction of the planet Earth attached to two silver instruments. Upon further inspection, these instruments begin to look like can openers and in this way the spherical Earth seems flattened, like the top portion of a can. The ideology inherent in this image is that the globe and its resources are entirely under a system of mechanized control. How long can humans twist and turn and alter the planet so that its natural resources become unhinged?

The dazzling nature of the first photomontage is intriguing enough so that one is not let down when they learn the entire gallery is full of Kennard’s work. Due to the amount of detail and thought that the artist has put into these works it is suitable that his show is the only exhibit at the Raven Row. As a whole, his works must be viewed with patience and each image demands consideration from its viewers. The first floor combines large-scale paintings with photo montage and most of Kennard’s large-scale paintings are grouped together stylistically. Some of them have a minimal quality about them as if the artists’ mere suggestion of certain forms will require the consideration of specific subjects from the viewer. Located in the foreground of one large-scale, black and white painting, there appears the top portion of a sphere that has been cut in half. The shape is reminiscent of helmets that were worn by military forces during the Vietnam War. This impression becomes even stronger when one’s eye moves to the top portion of the painting - here there appears the silhouette of an army in line, all of which are wearing helmets. At this point, the political implications inherent in Kennard’s works become undeniable.

Moving through the gallery, Kennard’s exhibit becomes increasingly anti-war, albeit the ways in which Kennard has chosen to represent this theme is varied. In one photomontage, there appears a circular table that is surrounded with men in business suits, a symbol in the upper left hand corner of this work representing NATO, the military defense alliance. With this found image reminiscent of a conference room, Kennard inserted a bundle of missiles as the centerpiece to the table in the room. Here he uses photomontage in order to satirize the violent nature of military defense. This missile motif is applied consecutively throughout the first floor; in one piece Kennard has positioned the missiles by outlining one section of the globe. This gives the impression that the globe is a head of a body while the missiles are spiky clusters of hair. Some of Kennard’s pieces are meant to evoke a social awareness in the viewer while others are simply clever arrangements. In all of Kennard’s works, there is a real sense of tactility. The artist is precise and careful with the media he has chosen to employ. With the amount of time that Kennard has given to his works, the pieces have a handmade and almost intimate quality about them as if the viewer is glimpsing into a scene that is closed off and without a sense of time.

The most impressive set of Kennard’s works are also located on the first floor. They are carried out entirely in black paint, although it is impossible to imagine that these images weren’t carried out in charcoal. Perhaps this is due to the softness with which Kennard has painted details of facial features. One can make out the sweeping lines of a nose or the faint outline of an eyelid. The additional details of these faces are to be filled out by the minds-eye of the viewer. This idea again supports Kennard’s heavy reliance on minimalism. These paintings are bare and solemn - although each face is minimal, they are also individualized. He pays tribute to victims of war and desperation that have been lost in time. It is as if they fade helplessly into the black paint with which he has depicted them.

There is a definite sense of loss throughout the At Earth exhibit whether it be viewing the loss of our natural resources or the loss of human life. In one digital image, Kennard presents us with land that is dry and cracked as a flowing faucet intrudes the land in the foreground. From the faucet, black liquid that is reminiscent of oil pours out. In another image, a power plant’s smoky pollution is represented by pounds eloquently put together in the form of billowing factory fumes. So carefully has Kennard put together this photomontage that the viewer clearly makes out Queen Elizabeth’s face on the appropriated currency that has been used in order to represent smog. Kennard’s works are meant to represent the prices that might be paid as a result of destruction. While some of his images drive this point home a little too hard, such as the depiction of a soldier that is pointing a loaded gun at a child, the viewer leaves with sensitivity for human and economic destruction. In leaving this exhibit we might be reminded that time is running out and it is never too late to replenish life and the Earth’s natural resources.

Peter Kennard At Earth continues until 22 May. For further information and opening times please visit www.ravenrow.org

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Original photomontages, 1972–96
Courtesy of Peter Kennard and Raven Row

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