By KURT MCVEY January, 2019
“Long story short, it was art my whole life,” begins the artist and DC native, Coby Kennedy, once he’s all the way up the graffiti riddled stairway in his flirtatiously apocalyptic studio loft in a contentiously tenuous Bushwick warehouse where he’s lived and worked since the summer. “My parents are artists,” he continues, as if the bullet points of his life and artistic CV were real, expendable ammunition. “I was a designer for a decade, got out of school at Pratt (BA, Industrial Design, 2000), went to Japan for car design (Honda), started my own company in Italy (Frozen Design), came back to the states and was dejected. In the design world, it never comes out how you want.”
In 2008, after returning to the US and disenfranchised with the lowest common denominator impetus inherent in design, Kennedy attended the 2008 edition of Scope Art Fair with his stepbrother, the artist and activist, Hank Willis Thomas. Kennedy remembers it like this: “Hank was like, ‘What did you think of the stuff at Scope?’ (Now for a vague, censored spoiler: Kennedy wasn’t exactly impressed.) “Hank double dog dared me to put my money where my mouth is and do art full time. I jumped in with both feet.”
Fast-forward a few years. Kennedy didn’t want to “mess” with the mainstream commercial fine art world, which he often abbreviates and squawks out mid-sentence as MCFAW, as if he were some friendly, highly intelligent bird of prey. The slightly more intersectional version of that, to which Kennedy may or may not apply (the central question of this piece), he calls the BMCFAW or the black mainstream commercial fine art world. “One of my pinnacles was to reach the cover of Juxtapoz,” he says. “When Hank was on the cover, I was like, ‘He finally made it!’ ”
Many people are aware, presumably those operating or interested primarily in the MCFAW, that the above quote is something of an ironic joke, worthy of an eye roll and a bourgeois chortle, but why exactly? Outside of Hank Willis Thomas (HWT) growing in general professional stature well beyond this worthy accolade, it’s mostly because artists working with illustration, figuration, or darker, less abstract or gentile imagery, are not considered “serious artists.”
“For the last few years, personally or artistically, my whole thing has been discovering how many rules and gridded-out many of these art circles are,” says Kennedy. “I grew up with a lot of these “Juxtapozian” artists my whole life. A lot of the circles I want my work to swim in, I can’t be around, and that includes many of the people who make up these circles. It’s like the art world inquisition. There’s so much dogma out there.”
Dogma. Not the first time an arts journalist worth his or her salt will have stumbled across this word in reference to the MCFAW, but the BMCFAW? That might be something that has yet to be fully articulated, let alone explored, especially coming from an artist of color operating on or around the threshold of these intersecting and yet clearly defined curatorial cliques. “It’s almost like you have to surf with the dogma and navigate the preconceptions,” says Kennedy. “It’s so weird.”
Here’s as good a point as ever to briefly peg this sucker down. Not that a potentially ascendant artist with previous exhibitor ties to the ever-expanding Superchief Gallery (still crazy after all these years), a pre-HBO-VICE-meets-Juxtapoz curatorial collective with a fixation on NSFW illustrative work and a true penchant for discovering raw talent, or the now defunct Culturefix (outside of Wallplay [more reliant on brand activations], perhaps the last truly happening multi-media art space to operate downtown) needs the excuse to get some digital coverage from an art writer long-tethered to those same worlds, but Mr. Kennedy has two shows coming up in art spaces that should invite BMCFAW curators as well as the writers and editors entranced and ensnared by the MCFAW-sanctioned publications known to hop on the contemporary art bandwagon faster (but later) than Swizz Beatz eyeing vacant storage space for The Dean Collection.
The first is Coby Kennedy: Empire of Mythology, opening February 1st in the Ruth S. Harley University Gallery on the Adelphi campus on Long Island and hosted in collaboration with the Center for African, Black and Caribbean Studies. “It started off as a “black history month show,” says Kennedy. “The [Exhibition and Art Collection] Curator [Jon Duff] came to me because he was looking for something that wasn’t your normal ‘boilerplate uplifting’ kind of thing. I’m approaching it as a museum exhibition of a past that hasn’t happened yet.”
If you’re familiar with Coby Kennedy, you know he enjoys compressing time and space the same way a sculptor might manipulate more material matter like bronze or clay. His work reliably incorporates the dynamics of power, control and privilege, factors that extend back through five thousand years of human civilization, let alone 500 years of European painting or more recently, the Black Diaspora of the 20th century.
The Adelphi show will involve “2D image frame stuff,” essentially digital collages, an extension of his painting and photography practice and mounted onto intensely layered Kevlar (bang!) canvas with a gel transfer and tastefully sanded down to give the contemporary work the feel of an ancient artifact. These are then mounted onto huge baroque frames, which he also paints, cuts and manipulates. Also present will be his now trademark “blades,” as seen in his Machete Mandala, for instance. These are makeshift, artistic but functional (see: dangerous) spear-like weaponry made from repurposed Brooklyn streets signs (tellingly, Marcus Garvey Blvd., Nostrand Ave., Malcolm X Blvd., etc.), which will live alongside artifacts from the university’s archives and special collections, which Kennedy pulled with the help of Mr. Duff. It will be one of the artist’s first educational cum institutional shows, and one free from the commercial pressures of the MCFAW.
On February 7th (8th for the public), Mr. Kennedy will be showing works from his “IN THE SERVICE OF A VILLAIN” series in the group show, Harlem Perspectives II at FACTION Art Projects. The show is co-curated by Leanne Stella of Art In FLUX and will highlight artists interested in deconstructing historical narratives through their unique art making process. The idea that all of the participating artists (David C. Terry, Elan Cadiz, Kennedy Yanko, Patrick Alston, and Tammy Nguyen) live and work above Manhattan’s 110th Street seems to be a rather fluid concept, more of a vibe than a concrete geographic reality.
Kennedy describes his “IN THE SERVICE OF A VILLAIN” series, which, during the interview for this piece graced the bulk of the wall space in his studio, as such: “How would future societies build their civilizations if they only had the art we make today?” It’s in many ways the chronological antithesis of the Adelphi Mythology show, yet it similarly distorts time in a quantum, science-fiction sense; a sort of George Lucas-meets Philip K. Dick-approved approach to art making. Very soon after breaking the ice with Kennedy, you discover that he is a huge fan of the Sci-fi genre and less a fan of our “baby steps” approach to seeing the future dreams of the past come to functional fruition. “We’re supposed to have flying fucking cars right now!” Kennedy exclaims with childlike, winking frustration. “Blade Runner, the day and date I’ve been waiting for since I was seven, was one month ago. I’m like, ‘Y’all are lacking.’ ”
Before describing the deeper themes in the ITSOAV series, let alone its stark imagery, one must return to the dogma that both stifles and inspires what Kennedy’s serving up. “In the interest in staying on the record,” he begins, treading softly, “there are certain branches of the contemporary art market, institutional and commercial, that have the dogma thing down to a science. There are people out there-collectors, dealers, gallerists-that feel if you ain’t painting black people sitting on a stoop in Harlem, then you ain’t makin’ shit.”
Kennedy recalls HWT coming through for a studio visit in early 2017 before he was about to stage a solo show at Gallery MOMO in Cape Town titled, SKIN OF THE THUG. “Hank was like, ‘You need to take the penises out of your stuff,’ ” he recalls. “I have this thing called the ‘Thuggernaut.’ You can’t PG-13 that shit (darkly satirical, Orwellian, hulking cyborg creatures exploding with phalluses, which attempt to rebuke the racist use of the word ‘thug’ to describe black men). Hank was like, ‘Do you want to sell art work, ever?’ ”
After leaving design, Kennedy isn’t about to start line towing for the masters of the MCFAW, but the truth remains, the now entrenched tastemakers in the BMCFAW are still catering primarily to older white collectors, who might have a hard time embracing something called the “Thuggernaut,” let alone hanging it above their chaise lounge. Established black artists and curators don’t want to let go of their anti-establishment vantage point despite entering into a symbiotic relationship with the status quo. Despite a vocal, increasingly influential art cafeteria table of strong black voices, far too many artists of color are still operating under an oppressive umbrella of creative indentured servitude.
“I want folks to get their money and do their thing and get shown, but it’s the taste-making that bothers me,” says Kennedy. “I got into this when I couldn’t get my unfettered vision out there in design, and now I’m getting fettered like crazy because what I’m shooting for is one of the most xenophobic and conservative circles of the art world that there is. There’s a set of rules-race, status, political outlook, gender-all of this. This last year has been about dealing with that.”
Kennedy’s mother, Doris Colbert Kennedy, a successful, “intuitive realist” painter in her own right, who clearly imprinted her love of science (Quantum mechanics, String Theory, natural phenomena) passed away roughly 15 months ago, last September. “The whole last year has been nuts; as dark as a human can get to,” admits Kennedy. “I swam in that shit. In Colorado, at Anderson Ranch [Arts Center in Snowmass Village, a 10-week residency program], it was altitude sickness. I was drunk from no oxygen. Hank swooped in and took me to Burning Man. We did a sculpture out there. A month and a half ago, in November, I started coming out of the clouds.”
A year earlier, Kennedy was just emerging out of his Columbia University MFA program (2014-16) just as Donald Trump was positioning himself to claim the highest seat in all the land. “The big thing about Columbia, by the 6-month mark, I was like, ‘Is it me? Am I crazy?’ I, a six foot black man, was walking into a cacophony of dogma. I often make work through the lens of that which I’m critiquing, and that can be troublesome, especially in this climate. I learned, as far as your art goes, there cannot be too much deviation from how you’re perceived as a physical object.”
After graduating from Columbia, Kennedy found his way to Detroit for the Red Bull House of Art residency program, where he flexed his extensive multi media muscles in video art, murals, and sculpture. It was also his home base when he found out Trump won the election. “I was the happiest motherfucker in the mid-west when Trump got elected,” he says. “It went late. They were counting votes. I woke up and all I could hear from the streets and down the hall were screams, crying, and cursing, and I was like, ‘Yes!’ ”
Mr. Kennedy would now like you to take a deep breath and realize he’s not a black conservative, God no, nor an anarchist, but a brutal realist. “We needed a shot in the arm,” he says. “I was sick of seeing the truth right here, but they (white liberals presumably) couldn’t afford to scoot over. America isn’t about the two strips down the coast. This reckoning would not have happened if Trump didn’t get elected. It makes me feel wonderful, especially as an artist, because the worst thing is numbness. The nineties were all about nihilism. That is the worst for me. Anything that brings about emotion, heightened temperature, friction, something new; that’s progression.”
And is Kennedy worried, that despite this villainous savior theory, the United States and Western Democracy might be irreparably damaged? “How irreparable can you get?” he asks. Well, top-secret information being disclosed to our enemies, maybe; a new, icy hot cold war? Nuclear Armageddon? “That would be great, then I could afford to live in Manhattan again,” Kennedy says, eliciting mutual howls of laughter. “I’ve been waiting for WWIII bro! Nuclear war? That’s the only thing that’s going to get me back on the LES.”
At Columbia, Kennedy realized just to what degree race is concocted, especially when he discovered just how many of his peers, not only of the international variety, struggled with how his own lineage could come to an abrupt dead end, courtesy of the trans Atlantic slave trade. “Race was made up a few hundred years ago, but I’ve grown up with the world being irreparably damaged for me.”
Kennedy believes his ITSOAV series is a complete reflection of how people in tough neighborhoods are just carbon copies of the stuff they’re given. “The narrative also became about my father and mother,” he says, adding that his parents exemplify the polar ends of the spectrum of the Black Diaspora experience of the 20th century. “Dad [Winston Kennedy] was super dark [skinned], the first to ever go to college in his entire family,” says Kennedy. “He became a professor and then Dean of the Art Department at Howard University. His whole family hated him for it. The classic thing: ‘Why you tryin’ to act white?’ He still has a problematic relationship with his family. The first 14 years of his life he lived like a slave, literally picking cotton every year on a plantation in South Carolina. He took me to visit the site once and they actually shot at us. They even let the dogs out too.”
Kennedy’s mother by contrast was “super light-skinned” and had all the benefits of light skin in America in the 20th century. “Mom did huge, large scale oil paintings, now in storage in Queens,” he says. “Me, mom and dad form an interesting trifecta of brown art in America, from Color Field to AfriCOBRA. I grew up with Jeff Donaldson's works all around me. Somewhere there’s an old picture of me breast feeding in front of an Ed Love sculpture.”
Kennedy knows his history. He’s received his institutional stamp of approval, read the books and can talk the talk, even if he’s always walked the walk. He’s aware of his own privilege, that men are often trash and women should once more be worshiped as deities, but don’t expect an apology or any “soapbox art” from the man anytime soon. He simply can’t do it, even if the MCFAW and all its intersectional fractals seemingly require the same soap and the same old box from all the right shops. Instead, expect Kennedy to do what he does best: kick in the door and wave in the four-four.
“The thing that I’ve learned the most, at a personal level, is there’s a place I want to get to and there are some things I’ll have to do to get there,” he says. “I know there’s a taste for these things built in, but I’m trying to circumvent the current tastemakers. Hank said to me, ‘Can you live with these images on your wall?’ I’m like, ‘Yes!’ But these are my limits I guess.” WM
Kurt McVey is a writer based in New York City.
photo by Monet Luckiview all articles from this author