Kenny is a British / Swiss artist and has exhibited internationally at galleries and institutions, including: Kunsthaus Zürich, CH; Kunsthalle Basel, CH; Kunsthaus Baselland, Muttenz, CH; Kunstmuseum Luzern, CH; Contemporary Forward, Rochdale, UK; Aargauer Kunsthaus, CH; Kunsthaus Langenthal, CH; AKKU Emmenbrücke, CH; DOLL espace d’art contemporain, Lausanne, CH; Contemporary Arts Society UK ; La Kunsthalle, Mulhouse, FR; commercial galleries such as Von Bartha Gallery, Basel; Wilde Gallery, Basel; VITRINE Gallery, London and Giséle Linder Galerie, Basel, with whom she shows regularly at ARTBASEL. She has also been presented at Artissima, Turin, IT; Artgenève, Geneve, CH; Artforum Berlin, DE; The Manchester Contemporary, UK; and Marfa Invitational, Texas, US.
She is listed in SIKART, Lexikon zur Kunst, CH; has twice been shortlisted for the Swiss Art Awards; and was awarded the Kunstkredit Prize from the city of Basel in Switzerland in 2013 and 2017/18. She was artist in residence at Residency Unlimited in New York, USA (2018), at the Institute for Provocation in Beijing, ProHelvetia, (2015) and the IAAB cite des Artes, Paris (2013). Kenny’s large permanent public commission ‘Site Unseen’ launched in July 2016 and is on view in Basel Switzerland. Her work has a place in many public collections such as ArtUK and internationally renowned private art collections.
The title of Clare Kenny’s “If I was a rich girl” at the Kunst Raum Reihen has been a cause of discomfort amongst pedants (we used to call them “grammar nazis” but I’ve been told that it’s not ok to verharmlosen in a bilingual publication). Some went out of their way to let her know that they thought the correct expression is “If I were a rich girl”. For the record, “I” is not a plural, and although it may be useful to use "were" to indicate that the speaker is in the irrealis mood, a parallel universe in which they are rich, there is one fatal problem. “If I were a rich girl” may be more grammatically correct, but it is a rich girl's way to set up a counterfactual conditional, and only someone posh would use it.
From the look of the show, if Kenny was rich, her life would be pretty weird. But this requires no parallel universe, because her life is already pretty weird. Kenny is a funny artist, and she knows how to lean into a joke. The first level of this joke, which you need to know if you’re not from Basel, and statistically if you are reading this you’re probably not, is that the Kunst Raum Reihen is right next to the Fondation Beyeler, an institution that is famous for having lots of expensive stuff. It looks rather like it is part of it, a little gatekeepers lodge on the edge of the palace, but actually its not, it’s a small city owned gallery, that has somehow managed not to be absorbed by the cultural machine of the Beyeler, even as it ekes out an existence in its shadow, rather like a pilot fish swimming close to the mouth of a large shark.
Clare Kenny makes full use of this proximity, decking out the gallery like a palatial apartment. She paints the walls exactly the same pastel lavender that was popular in posh English houses (the kind that had collections of antique marble sculpture) in the early 19th century. She creates stucco cornices that are on close inspection much too large, but look pleasingly and theatrically pretentious in photographs, and she made endless ungainly pottery lamps that mutely, desperately attempt to imitate something horribly expensive from hard paste porcelain. What comes out is a kind of pantomime of grotesque wealth, but done in a tasteful way. This suits the city of Basel well, which also does a kind of artfully modest performance of having too much money, visible from the luxury watch fair that is held there every year, to the art fair, where the kinds of metrics that are used to predict success include a tally of the number of private jets flying in for the opening weekend.
The second level of the joke is this: In order to do this show at all, Clare Kenny had to go cap in hand to her better heeled friends to borrow works. All the artworks that she puts in her fantasy apartment are from private collectors. And her collector friends have expensive, I mean expressive taste: Louise Bourgeois, Imi Knoebel, and Wolfgang Tillmans. One of Basel’s greatest children, the art historian Jacob Burckhardt, alluded to the affinity between art history and satire. The history of art, followed to its logical conclusion, is a history of the gap between how the rich and powerful wish to present themselves, and how they are perceived. It is the constant attempt to close this gap that keeps art dynamic (not any nonsense about avant gardes and their inherent restlessness). I hope this show makes her rich, so that she can continue to make art that trivialises money. She should sell the stucco by the metre. Please send expressions of interest to the editors. You’ll find their contact details in the front of the magazine.
(erratum: not all of the works are from private collections, some were borrowed from the Fondation Beyeler, who musn't have realised what they were in for, and the Photomuseum Winterthur)
Adam Jasper, 2019 Zürich
Ein T-Shirt liegt auf der Straße, Schuhe baumeln über einer Leitung, Ballons liegen zertreten am Boden, eine Unterhose hängt im Gebüsch. Es sind flüchtige Szenen aus dem Alltag, die auf den ersten Blick banal erscheinen, weil sie so geläufig sind, auf den zweiten Blick irritieren und verstören sie. Die Türe zu einem Assoziationsraum voll Freude und Leid, Trauer und Euphorie, Liebe und Angst wird aufgestoßen. Clare Kenny ist durch die Straßen des Viertels Bushwick in New York City flaniert und hat ihre Beobachtungen in Gips gegossen zurück mit in die Schweiz genommen. Ihre Reflexion setzt sie, tausende Kilometer vom Fundort entfernt, fort. Sie hält geschickt die Balance zwischen Ironie und Beunruhigung, indem sie ihre Gedanken ausspricht: „All I got was this lousy t-shirt“, „Breathless“, „Step on you again“, „Brief encounters“, „Running joke“. Sie friert die Momente ein, stellt Kopien der Objekte her, taucht sie in Farbe und überlässt es dem Betrachter, einen Standpunkt zu finden, der vielleicht nah an der Wirklichkeit ist, der vielleicht aber auch weit entfernt und damit Fiktion ist.
Clare Kennys Interesse gilt der Fotografie und dem Spiel mit Materialien, ein fotografisches Abbild zu schaffen, das sich an der analogen Arbeitsweise orientiert, also dem Arbeiten mit den Händen. Eine Kopie des Objekts entsteht mit dem Objekt selbst. Skulptural stellt sie ein Abbild her, das zwischen Zwei- und Dreidimensionalität changiert, das eine Fotografie sein könnte, sich aber als plastisches Objekt zu erkennen gibt.
Clare Kenny brachte von ihrem sechsmonatigen Stipendienaufenthalt in New York City zwei weitere Werkgruppen mit. Das erste Mal seit zwanzig Jahren hat sie wieder eine Dunkelkammer betreten, um die Grenzen des Mediums Fotografie auszuloten. Ein fleckiger Vorhang in ihrer Wohnung, Dinge aus dem Dollar Store und Säcke auf der Straße dienen ihr dazu, das fotografische Motiv aus dem Rahmen zu lösen.
Anika Meier, 2018
For her first institutional solo exhibition in the UK here at Touchstones Rochdale, Basel-based Clare Kenny has chosen to present existing and new work that reflects many of the re-occurring motifs and concerns in her artistic practice and draws heavily on her childhood memories of growing up in the area and her life now in Switzerland.
Although originating from a very personal perspective Kenny’s work seeks to resonate with a shared visual consciousness of others, especially those who come from similar working class backgrounds. Indeed, she frequently foregrounds her northern England upbringing, memories of home and the aspirations of the working classes and their determination to better themselves.
The ideas of self-improvement and social mobility encouraged by Thatcherite philosophy of the individual and the decline of manufacturing after the second world war, created a generation of people whose aspirations fell far from the factory floor. Kenny never loses sight of how these formative early experiences have continued to shape how she perceives the world around her and her artistic practice.
It runs as a constant thread weaving its way through the work in this exhibition both in her choice of materials (such as Plexiglas, cement, neon, brass and fabric) but also in the subject-matter. Take for example, her sculptural pieces (Enough rope to hang ‘emselves) inspired by the washing lines (a once ubiquitous sight in the backyards, ginnels and other available spaces of the industrial northern heartlands), the series of puddles based on childhood memories of marvelling at how the petrol spills (from “old bangers” parked in the streets where she played) magically split the light spectrum to reveal a rainbow, and the works playfully referencing the interior decoration (wallpaper, fabric hangings and curtains) she grew up surrounded by.
Whilst deeply rooted in her childhood experiences the attraction to, and desire to transform and elevate, the seemingly prosaic and workaday is something that has continued to inform her life and practice now in Switzerland – making it more than just a nostalgic longing to return to a former time in her life but rather a way of seeing or a set of aesthetic principles she brings to wherever she is living. This is reflected in the new Plexiglas work inspired by an enormous paned window from a factory in Basel she passes daily and the images of objects (she has been assiduously collecting over the last ten years of her life in Basel) digitally manipulated and reproduced on the wallpaper and fabric works she has made for this exhibition.
Mark Doyle, 2017
‘Enough rope to hang ‘emselves ‘ is the second solo exhibition at the gallery of Manchester born, Basel based artist Clare Kenny. Clare Kenny works with a variety of materials such as found objects and building materials, neon and photography where reality and representation are explored.
‘Enough rope to hang ‘emselves’ comes from a larger body of work that will be shown in her hometown, Rochdale, Greater Manchester; in her first solo institutional exhibition in the UK in 2017 at Touchstones. The works in the exhibition at VITRINE and later at Touchstones respond to each space, their individual environments and the artist’s recollections of her home county. Through subtle gestures and assemblages Kenny adapts a story, translating a new narrative, reflecting concerns of the nebulous divide between fact and fiction.
Informed by personal viewpoints and experiences, especially her upbringing and family history, Kenny often toys with notions that relate heavily on a wider level to many people’s lives, where shared histories is a recurring theme throughout Kenny’s practice. For ‘Enough rope to hang ‘emselves’, Kenny takes a family story regarding her grandmother, who spent much of her life working in a rope factory, as the catalyst of constructing an installation and a body of work. Addressing her Northern England upbringings, memories of home and the common experiences of working class families since the industrial revolution during the 1900’s, Kenny devises a multi layered installation juxtaposing materials of poorer and higher values and adopting methods often associated with the domestic.
Following the first World War, the rope factory and many other industries fell into decline and poverty ensued; prompting a depression in social and economic conditions. As with most working class people of Kenny’s grandmother’s generation, she hoped for better things for her child and encouraged Kenny’s mother to achieve something more.
Aspirations of the working class and their determination to better themselves is something Kenny often references within her own work, especially within ‘enough rope to hang ‘emselves’. A neon washing line is erected across the entirety of the 16-metre vitrine where a series of bronze and marbleised sculptural works sit amongst it, replicating the washing lines strung across gardens, ginnels or other available spaces. Addressing personal affiliations with Northern England is inherent, by carefully highlighting the use of domestic objects and use of materials, Kenny transforms them into objects of high esteem, focusing on shared visual memories and aesthetics of aspiration, something of which Kenny feels is too often lacking in contemporary art.
Chris Bayley, London 2016
The exhibition ‘Tales of the Authentic’ includes works from at least six bodies of work. These encompass traditionally presented photography; pieces that make glass itself the ground for works, rather than their transparent cover; the legs of jeans filled with plaster; works in different kinds of building render or finish; ‘puddle’ pieces presented on the floor; and new works where plaster casts are treated with techniques from interior decoration. Through choices of subject and media Kenny acts like a tour guide, or even an ethnographer, of her origins. Not only does her work bear traces of her Northern English cultural heritage, but her choice of materials is equally informed by the fabric of the environment in which she grew up. In making these choices, she plays with stereotypes of the bleak, industrial North, and of the pliability of memory. As the ethnographer must guard against changing – or accept that they inevitably will alter – that which they observe, the artist knows that her ‘Tales of the Authentic’ are unreliable documents.
Viewers of previous works using large sheets of photographic paper often mistake the paper for metal, and in some of Kenny’s most recent pieces the topics of illusion and appearance become explicit. This exhibition for example includes 3 plaster impressions taken from photography developing trays entitled Arrested Development (2014), which are displayed hanging on the wall. Where the base of the tray is reproduced, the plaster has a scagliola finish that was created during casting. Scagliola is a plaster effect traditionally used to create imitations of marble in grand buildings, one that Kenny knows well thanks to experience gained as a specialist decorator creating such illusions. Her iteration of the technique does not try to trick or to create a convincing trompe l’oeil, but makes the material evident. Nonetheless, it engages with a history of aspirational aesthetics. (It is little surprise that this field is one we all understand yet is rarely deemed worthy of investigation.) As does the work Pebbledash (2014), a circular disc of the exterior treatment, presented as if it were an abstract painting surface. Pebbledash is the ne plus ultra of home improvement in the UK, a finish that signals the urge to better one’s residence while in all likelihood decreasing its value. Salford Lad’s Club (2014) presents a similar sample of a building finish, in this case red brick. The material is what is expected of ex-industrial cities in the north of England, though here there’s an extra layer of cliché, for the title and graffiti reproduced on the wall echo a famous photograph of the band The Smiths that was used for their album ‘The Queen is Dead’. (The Northern band, famous for bleak and pessimistic music, sought ‘authenticity’ by posing outside a club created for boys from deprived backgrounds, while their own success drew them away from this very context.)
Kenny’s use of these specific connotations is not just – if at all – a commentary on English building idiom. Rather it helps create fruitful comparisons with other systems of classification and status, as abound in the art context. The distinction between art photography and photography, or the respect that painting enjoys, say. So while Kenny’s sculptures and images are endlessly optimistic in their brightness, they are underpinned by a nuanced understanding of the class distinctions they work with and against. As the titles of both exhibition and individual pieces suggest, every work of art is codified by its medium, yet sometimes materials deserve to be appreciated for their own qualities rather than the associations to which they are continually subjected.
Aoife Rosenmeyer, 2014
“I do think that we largely delude ourselves with the knowledge that we think we possess, that we make it up as we go along, that we make it fit our desire and anxieties and that we invent a straight line or a trail in order to calm ourselves down” – W. G. Sebald (W. G. Sebald & James Wood, Brick, 1998)
Certain materials can undergo transformations so dramatic that they can be rendered unrecognisable without losing their physical self. It is so with the sculptural and photographic works of Clare Kenny, whose solo exhibition launched at VITRINE Bermondsey Street in October. A photographic print of a curtain curls around a pillar, watched silently by the disembodied legs of the artists’ plaster‐filled jeans. In ‘Yesterday’s labour is the Future’s folly’, anecdotes and memories from the artists’ life, both real and fabricated, combine with material manipulations that question substance and subject. In Kenny’s sculptures and print works, fact and fiction weave effortlessly. It was this common ground that first led Kenny to the prose of W. B. Sebald and in particular, to his novel The Emigrants, which follows the lives of four emigrants who are both shaped and haunted by the memories they possess. Threading through these tales is the illusive figure of the Russian emigrant novelist Vladimir Nabokov, whose presence is felt alongside the characters variously as in a photograph, as the author of a characters’ reading or in a flashback to a mysterious episode in the life of a character.
As Sebald’s illusive envoy of fact, Nabrokov slips in and out of the character’s lives, neither a fictional entity – for links to the novelist all stem from concrete details regarding Nabokov’s life – nor, as the genre of novel necessitates – a factual absolute. The effect is a prose that sits on the dividing line between documentary and novel, pushing the reader to question the very nature of reality. As Sebald’s writing requires a reader willing to walk the lines between fact and fiction, so Kenny’s art treads a hazy path between the real and the fabricated. Kenny rejects the idea of the narrator taking control of an account, instead presenting the viewer with a narrative, told through materials, to interpret as they wish. In ‘Meteorite’, we see a sculptural effigy of a meteoroid, its surface mottled with all the pockmarks and pits of a prehistoric rock. The piece is born of the artists’ memory of a meteorite falling near her childhood home in Manchester. When Kenny consulted her sister on the matter, however, she purported to only remember Kenny’s previous articulation of the memory. A memory within a memory, the representation of the story teeters between fantastical and grounded.
The pieces’ solidity, like its premise, is ambivalent. What appears at a faraway glance to be a solid mass quickly transforms into a contorted photograph depicting the surface of a rock. Kenny has physically manipulated the print, coercing it to take the form of that which it depicted in two-°©‐dimensions. A material quirk demonstrates the artists’ playfulness; silver, which can be extracted from meteorites, is present in the print, tying the photograph back to the event depicted. The same delight in material experimentation can be found in ‘Fiction follows form’ a wall-°©‐based piece comprised of a metal replication of a wooden garden trellice. Following this first manipulation, Kenny spray‐painted the structure to achieve a stone effect, giving the piece an ambiguous materiality. The trellice acts as a frame for a print work that demonstrates a similarly complex series of transformation. ‘Granite’, whilst appearing to depict the material after which it is named, actually documents the mottled surface that results from laying a slab of plaster on top of wooden plank. A sister work, ‘Form follows fiction’, uses the trellice structure to support a neon form modeled on the artists’ hand‐drawn sketch of a piece of rope.
In a series of framed works, spray paint overlays photographs of a spray‐painted surface, creating a subtle dissonant between the texture of the real and the flatness of the documented. The muted colour palettes of ‘Beyond the pale’, ‘Pond Life’ and ‘Looking back at you’ marry the layers together almost seamlessly. The reward to the careful viewer is a glimpse at the collision of two pasts, famed in an ambivalent present. In a back room, the artists’ memory is channelled through three photographs taken from apartment windows in Manchester, New York and Barcelona. Bent, scrunched, hole‐punched and folded before being re‐photographed, the prints have taken on a set of memories of their own. Their wavering connection to their original subjects somehow heightens their resonance as shifting souvenirs of the artists’ life. Kenny is the thread that runs through the lives of each artwork, yet like the figure of Nabokov in Sebald’s novel, she is also the enigma that flees before any degree of conclusion can be reached. Having archived her memories in pictorial
and material form, she then releases them, allowing them to take an independent stance; a monument to a life lived that is neither entirely the artists’ nor the viewers’.
Susie Pentelow, 2013
Yesterday’s labour is the Future’s Folly
…The souvenir displaces the point of authenticity as it itself becomes the point of origin for narrative. Such a narrative cannot be generalised to encompass the experience of anyone…it is a narrative that seeks to reconcile the disparity between interiority and exteriority, subject and object, signified and signifier’… - From ‘On Longing, narratives of the miniature, the Gigantic, the souvenir, the Collection’ – Susan Stewart, Duke University Press, 1993 ed.
The forging of narrative fragments with materiality and a sense of mise-en-scene is in force in the work of Clare Kenny. In using disparate matter such as discarded kitchenware, paint, plaster and her own salvaged photographs, a sense of the familiar is something that always catches the corner of your eye.
Living in Basel, Switzerland, but originating from Manchester, England there persists a tension in Kenny’s work between that which is constructed from memory, and a certain sense of historicity of material matter – and yet not. Kenny would say that her work is a construction of fact versus fiction, memory versus illusion, immaterial-ness and materiality. What seems pertinent is that her approach to materials is a notably contemporary one. For example, marble is flattened and malleable, photographs are curled, rolled, folded and hole-punched, utility objects made hard and non-useable.
As well as the playfulness in what this may suggest, there is an arc in Kenny’s work that melds feminine and masculine sensibilities. In this way one could argue that Kenny de-genderises materials rendering their historical associations, indistinct and in a way non-traceable, messed up but intrinsically ‘present’.
The components within Clare Kenny’s first solo show at London’s Vitrine read a bit like a deconstructed house, with a confounding sense of interior and exterior features. The artist’s father was a builder and she has grown up around the activity of continuous transformations of materials into structure. Rather than standing abruptly as contestation and conversation with sculptural traditions, Kenny’s work actively plays with our sense of understanding things in the world both in and outside of artistic reality.
The plaster works, entitled, ‘Old English’ (a title that Kenny gleaned from an online catalogue of Chinese fake cladding), seem to embody an intrinsic understanding of petty value hierarchies. Sporadically dispersed throughout the gallery space, Kenny has woven threads of different colour into the plasterworks, that seem to hold these values in place whilst, simultaneously mocking them with the starkness of the white, white plaster and artificial, ‘neon’ like colour. The reference in the title also exposes the surface of the work as shifting and gestural, a bit like Kenny’s freckled childhood memory of such things.
“There is a sense of allure in my work. I wanted to assemble an exhibition that assesses and re-constructs my memories of places where I have lived, and aspects of my upbringing at the same time…But also acknowledge the fact that memory is never completely accurate. I wanted to fill these gaps, be suggestive with them, and play with the ‘landscape’ of the work in a gallery context”.
I also questioned Kenny about a photographic work, ‘Meteorite’ that stems from a memory of a rock falling to earth near her home in Manchester; “I’m not entirely sure this actually happened to me as my own experience, or whether it is something that I heard about at the time. For me, the point was to recollect the event of me knowing this at that time and knowing that such events occur in nature. With this piece I wanted to make something real and not real at the same time…the photograph has silver in the paper and that is something that is contained in meteors, the photograph presents the reality of the event. The fact that then this is made to look like a rock, by me screwing up the photograph into a ball, is in a sense, the element that makes the work complete, in its ambiguity.”
I suggest to Kenny that Susan Stewart’s citing of Kenneth Burke’s assertion that, “there are no forms of art which are not forms of experience outside of art”, may be a pertinent one, particularly in this exhibition, “yes, definitely – memories operate in elusive ways…they are often collective experiences, that over time are assimilated as personal experience, and this is something I have been looking at and thinking about for some time.”
Also in the show at Vitrine are series of works that are made to look like trellises commonly found in gardens and back yards. Kenny has fabricated the trellises in metal and interlaced them with various materials, from a neon ‘rope’ to photographs whose surfaces have in a sense been defaced: “ I wanted to use a symbol from suburbia, and of a certain type of living and use it in a way that makes it non-functioning and in a way meaningless, reduce it to surface elements that use the language of art and in particular, here, sculpture. To ‘impotise’ it a way….. I feel wary of certain upheld values and the trellis object seems to symbolise something that is pretty far away from my life as an adult, but something which has a language that I understand, and feel close to, somehow.”
Kenny constantly refers to the magnetism of the ‘authentic’ and how we are seduced by an understanding of heightening value when this is conveyed through history, with claims of legitimacy and vintage. Within this show - and Clare Kenny’s work on the whole - these values are contested, challenged and in a way, undermined.
The narrative that she weaves into the work draws from a rich source of materials, fact, fiction and form.
Natasha Rees for Wall Street International Magazine, 2013