Artist and educator JUSTIN MORGAN KENNEDY examines overlooked and dismissed places, resources and objects collected from both urban and rural environments. Whether in a concrete cast of a a rural Shenandoah deer path or an irregular, grid of found upholstery and imported mums, he hopes to draw our attention to what we do and don't value about our human habitats. Morgan earned his BA in Studio Art from George Mason University in 1997 and his MFA in Sculpture from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2000. He has had solo exhibitions at Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, where he was an Artist-in-Residence, in 2003 (Omaha, Nebraska) and the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts in 2008 (Wilmington, Delaware). In 2010, he was also an Artist-in-Residence at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center Arts Industry Residency. Most recently, he finished a collaborative piece called World Table with Workingman Collective at the Bascom Center for Visual Arts in Highlands, North Carolina. Morgan is an Assistant Professor of Sculpture Western Carolina University at and has relocated to Asheville, North Carolina.
OtherPeoplesPixels: “I am continually discovering the
connections between ego, form and context.” Can you expand on this quote
from your statement: what kinds of connections have you discovered?
Justin Morgan Kennedy: I have always been interested in the effects objects have in our understanding of place, time, memory and our consciousness as living entities. I have often questioned the potential influence of dreams on our waking lives and vice versa. What roles do memories and dreams play, and how do they contribute to a relationship between humans and their environs?
In some West African cultures, if one dreams of a memorable encounter with a stranger or lover, the dreamer will wake and render a carving of the person as a wood statue. By doing this, the dreamer hopes the new sculpture will act as a signifier and produce more dream encounters. Seeing a real world representation should incite further lucid dream encounters with this person. I personally connect with this philosophy, and it poses further questions about the role tangible form plays in our understanding of the seen and unseen world. To me tangible form and concept are linked. They inform one another. The African dream doll rite for me solidifies that objects or forms in our real waking life can inform the ethereal distant world we go during our sleep cycle—signifier and signified. Objects and the physical dance to render or act as a bridge between the subconscious world and our waking life. I myself have had several dreams where I realized I was dreaming, woke up and drew the objects from my dreams. . . then made them.
OPP: I’m curious about your choice of the word habitat that is in some titles and in your statement. What connotations does habitat have for you, as opposed to space, place or environment?
JMK: Websters defines habitat as:
1a : the place or environment where a plant or animal naturally or normally lives and grows
b : the typical place of residence of a person or a group
c : a housing for a controlled physical environment in which people can live under surrounding, inhospitable conditions (as under the sea)
2: the place where something is commonly found
I like to explore the definitions of words, but at the same time see beyond their assigned meanings, especially since words are living and often take on new meanings. Habitat is about one’s experience in a particle place or environ for temporary or set periods of time. No single environ is permanent for any one culture, people or person. Time or a particular point in time (memory) should always be considered. Space, place, environ, and habitat all talk of context, but like a layer cake, they do so with greater degrees of complexity.
OPP: Could you talk about your use of live plants and upholstery in installations like Swine is Divine and Fleur #3-Delmarva and Fleur #2 Columbian Gold-Kieffer?
JMK: I am interested in the language of materials and their link to social stratification or hierarchy. Objects and materials have meaning and multiple associations. They tell stories and refer to certain human social systems. All the materials in these pieces come from specific urban contexts: Baltimore, DC or Milwaukee. I wanted to create a different take on how landscape is portrayed in art, and I aim to get the viewer to re-question their set value system.
Swine is Divine is a reflection of Milwaukee’s social diversity and social problems. Posh folks live on the northside; poor and working class people live on the south. There are industrial areas, forests popping up from the decay and segregated communities. I include paintings of pines trees not painted by me, but rather bought from ebay. I like the statement it presents: we live in a world where artifice rules, so we should use the system and make it part of the content. Also the pine trees represent fast growth, since old growth hardwoods were cut down in order to grow conifers to meet our nation’s paper demand. I also include weeds grown in a custom Victorian bowl and another with big box shop perennials. We value these purchased, mass grown flowering plants and have disdain for weeds like dandelion or clovers. Yet the weeds, which we often pay to remove, have much more uses outside the aesthetic role of their box shop competitors: as food, dye and medicine. They also attract wildlife and are often drought resistant.
Columbian Gold-Keifer grew out of my interest in adding color to my work. I thought to use something living instead of paint. Flowers have color, presence, and often require attentiveness to thrive; paint falls short in this respect. I thought of my youth working for my dad in Washington DC, selling flowers on the street corners. All the flowers we sold came from Columbia. I always thought flowers were so beautiful, but a luxury. People buy them for this reason, but behind the beauty lies hard work and a system of indentured servitude—sweat shops to a degree. I sought to explore this, so I put $500 worth of chrysanthemums in soda bottles collected from the trash cans at a local college campus. The bottles get reused but also revalued. Questions of value and perception are a constant theme in what I do.
OPP: Tell us about your experience of La Guerra de Acqua
(2011/12), in which you carried 80 lbs of water for 12 kilometers
through the Italian countryside. What was the impetus for this project?
JMK: In 2011, I was teaching sculpture in Italy. I had been there before as a young traveler and had many strong memories of a place where good food and lifestyle were highly valued. On my 2011 visit, I noticed one particular change. People no longer used glass bottles for water or beverages. Italy was one of the last holdouts of tradition in my eyes , but like America, they had made the switch to easy and disposable plastic. At the same time, it was summer in Tuscany and hot. I had made several local inquiries about swimming in one of the nearby lakes as I did in my native Virginia. I was told that locals don’t swim in lakes; that only the barbarians—like the Germani—do. Being of barbarian, Scottish decent, I relished in being a part of this lower social stratification. I realized that between these two observations a project was present and needed to be explored.
For me, being in tune or in balance with my surroundings is the utmost pursuit. The use of plastic beverage containers has greatly increased in my lifetime and as a result, our waterways have been polluted with plastic BPA polymers. So much so that plastic polymers are now classified as natural because they are found in nearly all our natural bodies of water. So the switch to cheap and easy has had a heavy price. Water is key to all life and should be used and treated with respect. Glass is heavy. It breaks, but it has nearly no negative effect on water’s make up, and the bottles can be reused time and time again if treated with care. Swimming or interfacing physically with nature helps to reinforce our relationship with it. Allowing an outdated, Roman-like mindset of judging outside cultures is ridiculous. Crotona, where I was living, is a mountain top walled Etruscan city 1000 feet above the shores of Lago Trasimeno where the barbarian Hannibal destroyed a Roman army of 80,000 men with 30,000 men and a handful of elephants.
OPP: Did you encounter people along the way? What happened when you reached your destination?
JMK: My idea was to go to the lake with 30 reclaimed, plastic water bottles
(collected daily from a local restaurant) and a homemade backpack. I
filled them with lake water to bring to the residents of Cortona. Since
they would not go to the lake themselves, I would bring the lake to
them. The 80 pounds of water was attached to a backpack and wired to my
body. The goal was to place all the water in a large bowl in
the main plaza for locals to dip their feet in. I began a day-long, 12 kilometer journey up a mountain to the town’s
main plaza. People who saw me leave earlier that morning and return in
the evening asked what I was doing. I responded “I am bringing the lake
to the people.”
It was so physically challenging—I really damaged my body—that just getting back to town with the water was a goal in itself. I believe the use of absurd amounts of labor can create a powerful, statement—romantic, but also sincere. In the end, I liked the fact that the water remained in the reused, 1-liter plastic water bottles that I collected. I displayed them in the local gallery along with a wall of images documenting the journey. I wanted to give value to the lake’s water, the discarded plastic water bottles and the romantic yet defeatist expenditure of labor that linked everything together. I hoped the viewers would come to question the reason for such a journey and see an absurd commitment to nature through sweat and physicality. The whole performance was gesture to ignite a dialogue or conversation about that which we should regard highly.
OPP: You’ve done several projects in which you cast outdoor spaces—Milwaukee Brown and Fascimile— to be brought into the gallery. Can you talk about the particular spaces you chose to highlight and recontextualize in the gallery?
JMK: Both projects parallel one another in terms of
meaning. I am interested in reality versus illusion and how we as humans
often fall back on assumptions for guidance. We grow up in particular
habitats. We understand these landscapes through a combination of
individual experience and teachings from stories. Most of us have never
been down a manhole cover into the sewers that lie beneath, but based
off movies, media and books we expect to find a series of concrete
tunnels, with a stream of water, trash and the occasional rodent passing
through. What if I could play with this presumption or expectation and
put another particular landscape where it should not be, using the
materials, process and languages associated with this new context?
Facsimile sought to reconstruct within a gallery context a rural Shenandoah deer path using typical construction materials found in interiour architecture like concrete or tiles. But instead of being flat flooring, it undulates in elevation and is a cast deer path from the Virginia countryside where I am from. So it’s half country, half urban (or human). It highlights one distant location—not important to most—by being isolated within the white cube gallery, which has great power in providing an intimate relationship with all that is placed within it.
Milwaukee Brown, still in-progress, attempts to make visible that which is hardly ever noticed, almost completely ignored. The Brownfield—representing urban blight and the causality of industry—is plot of land where no one can build because of industrial hazards once produced there. How can I take that which we do not want to see and make it not only visible, but also beautiful? This questioning of value lies at the heart of my work.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan), Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery (Chicago) and When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago). Form Unbound, a two-person show, also featuring the work of Aimée Beaubien, closed in December 2015 at Dominican University's O’Connor Art Gallery (River Forest, IL). Most recently, Stacia created a brand new site-responsive installation for SENTIENCE, a group show at The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art in March 2016.