Working From Life
An Interview with Tim Kennedy

This interview with Tim Kennedy coincides with his most recent exhibition in New York. He had come into town from Bloomington, Indiana to take charge of hanging the show. There were decisions to make: what paintings should be displayed on which wall, how they should be grouped. Known as a painter of elegant still lifes, Tim appears here as a figure painter as well. Working within a distinguished academic setting, Tim has not succumbed to reigning critical bias against painting or figuration. He remains committed to the act of painting and to the continuing relevance of the human figure.MM

MM: As a faculty member, you are, in fact, an academic. Do you consider yourself an academic painter?

TK: You've hit on a sore word with me. Some people consider anyone painting in a representational way to be academic, but in fact it is a very specific historical term. I asked something similar of my anatomy instructor in grad school; he said I should have a little humility and pointed out that all the academic painters of the 19th century were dead and the things they knew died with them. I suppose you could consider any institution with a point of view to be an academy. In that case I suppose that the Whitney Program is an academy. The image it brings to mind is the Saul Steinberg cartoon of identical renditions of a downtown artist marching in phalanx before a fictitious national academy of the avant garde.

I do teach painting at an institution and it does have a point of view. I don't believe that it has a formula.

MM: When we talk about academic painting in the 19th century, we know what our frame of reference is. Is that true today? Put another way, what is academic painting at the turn of the 21st century?

TK: Truthfully, I think that painting is so embattled and so little understood that it is difficult for me to think of it as academic. To be able to establish an academy there has to be a common, widely understood language. If museum professionals, critics and gallery owners confuse representational painting with photography�as they do�there isn't much hope for the public at large. It is discouraging to see so much painting that consists of a highly polished image where all trace of the process has been covered up. This is as true of venues that think of themselves as very progressive as it is of more conservative ones.

MM: You call painting "embattled." That interests me. At this year's CAA conference, a 3-hour panel on critics and artists made not one reference to painting or painters. It's as if painting had dropped off the screen.

TK: Well, maybe it has. But what choice do we have except to pursue it anyway because we are interested? Because it's a passion?

I know many many good painters who are working completely underground. Some would argue that painting—putting paint on canvas in traditional ways—does not belong in any contemporary context. I think just the opposite: that it makes the context much more interesting. The painting world is a kind of ghetto—but ghettos can be very vital places. It's funny. In today's critical climate work by artists who are painting have to be presented in such a way that it doesn't seem like painting. Think of Susanna Coffey and John Currin. to make them seem contemporary, they are presented as examining issues of beauty — in the fashion magazine sense. We are supposed to look at them through a social lens: dealing with feminine stereotypes in popular culture, et cetera.

Maybe it has always been this way. Interest moves in cycles. No one was interested in Duchamp's career for thirty years and then there was an explosion of interest in the 1960's. No one was interested in abstract painting in the '30's. It was underground until an explosion of interest in the '40's. Maybe painters today are on the cutting edge and we just don't know it.

MM: Has living with another painter affected your own work? The actual work itself or your ambitions for it?

TK: Living with Eve has done nothing but benefit me as an artist. I have never felt so well understood by anyone. We constantly affect one another. We watch each other paint, we visit one another's studios. I find myself considering things that I would have never tried or would have even been opposed to. I know I have affected her as well. We talk about painting and painters a lot.

MM: Can you give an example, Tim?

TK:Yes, certainly. I think that I have usually addressed myself to painting by thinking about the specific shapes of individual forms. Eve, instead, thinks of form as coming out of a hazy mass — like a charcoal drawing. After painting landscape next to each other over a summer several years ago in Italy, we noticed that she was painting forms in a more shape oriented way than usual. By contrast, I was painting masses.

Also, I have come to think of the subjects in a different way. In the past, I approached them in a much colder, abstract way. If I considered a subject—particularly in still life—I would gravitate toward a subject that had deliberately harsh associations. I do less of that now. That may have something to do with Eve, but then my whole life has changed.

MM: In a sense, you've just answered this but I will ask it anyway: Can two equally talented painters build a life together that is not strained by competition?

TK: It hasn't happened so far. I don't think it will. We are very supportive of each other. Even in the logistics of transporting and hanging shows. In ways, it is almost a collective enterprise.

MM:Your titles sometimes strike the audience as precious or self-conscious. Do the titles come before or after you finish a painting?

TK: What are you referring to? The still life or the figure paintings? Now you're making me feel a little self conscious!

MM: Oh, dear! I guess I'm thinking of a comment Mario Naves made in an earlier review. He admired those "dichotomous" still lifes but questioned the titles.

TM: I did some still life paintings a few years ago that I referred to as dichotomous still life paintings because I had split the paintings in half in some manner — usually by creating a division on the table the objects were arranged on with a piece of fabric or paper. I was actually using a plumb line to sight against his division when I was painting. I didn't like the title, but I didn't know how else to describe them.

Lately I have been doing still life inspired by Joseph Cornell box constructions. I think of the objects as Cornell-like objects and so far they have all contained post cards of Cornell boxes in the set ups. The titles — like Medici Boy — come from the boxes. Most of the figure paintings refer to an object in the painting like Coffee or Striped Towel. In some cases recently there are titles that are thematic such as Looking at Pictures. The title usually comes after.

MM: After many years of living and working in New York, is it liberating or constraining to be in the Mid-West?

TK: A little of both. During a visit to New York last September I walked with a friend from grad school around Williamsburg and remembered how nice it was living there. We wandered around and ran into people, artists that we knew. There are really a lot of galleries there now and we stopped in local restaurants and bars. It is a real artists' community that you can walk around. I don't think anything quite like it exists outside of New York.

On the other hand there were unspoken limitations and constraints on what I would paint and not paint when I lived there. And I feel that those are completely gone now. I paint the interior of my house, my yard, town landscapes and pose models in situations that somehow mirror my life here. In a sense I have a life to paint. I don't think I would have done any of those things when I lived in New York. I just wish we were closer to the ocean and big museums.

MM: Have you found audiences to be different outside of the narrow precincts of the NY art world?

TK: Yes and No. In some odd ways, groups of people out here can be more censorious of things that aren't hip. I am not the only one who has noted this. In other ways you can encounter an exceptionally educated audience. The community surrounding the painting program at Indiana University is super sharp visually—with a lot of differing viewpoints that are very visual and oriented toward painting.

MM: You seem to be working in watercolor more often now. Why the change?

TK: Actually, I've always worked in watercolor. In fact , that is how I learned to paint. I just haven't always shown them to people.

I suppose I have done them more frequently since moving out here. I like to paint landscape with watercolor. It is rapid and direct. The color is bright and it is a good way to record changes in light. I like doing them in the spring as the semester is ending.

It gets me ready for a summer of more intensive painting. I like painting the change of seasons. Watercolor requires fully focused, intensive sittings and for that reason I find them more difficult to do in the Fall as school is starting up. I have had some opportunities to show them lately so that, at least in part, explains why I am doing more of them.

MM: Does watercolor—the very nature of the medium—elicit a different response from you than oil painting?

TK: Sure. There is something inherently satisfying about watercolor. Pure, bright pigment standing against a reflective, white support is beautiful. Transparent watercolor has a logic; it can only get darker. I think of oil paint in terms of opacity and in terms of repeated working sessions on a painting. The light comes from a different place. The response in watercolor is more immediate and spontaneous. I have been doing watercolors on a larger scale over the past couple of years. These are about 18 across which feel big to me for a watercolor — it is probably about as large as I would want to go—but even with the bigger size I don't spent more than three sessions working them and many are completed in the first session.

MM: Your imagery is distinctly private, even domestic. Is it difficult to make private imagery appeal to a public?

TK: They are quiet paintings. So much art recently is based on an overt, iconic imagery. Not much value seems to be placed on private experience. Private experience is where I find meaning and nourishment. If it is not on fire or exploding sometimes it is difficult to get people to react to it. But then again what I do isn't for everyone and it isn't meant to be. Alex Katz wrote a nice article on his first experiences as an artist recently. He says he is working to get at the experiences he finds in great paintings as opposed to the novelty styles. He goes on to say, "Painting does not need you. You have to need painting. Painting has to become you." I think that's great!

MM: You seem to be concentrating less on still life and moving more toward the human figure in your work. Is this a conscious choice on your part? A deliberate turn toward the inherent expressivity of the figure in place of the more intellectual content of a staged still life?

TK: It feels like a natural evolution to me. It comes from a couple of different places, I think. Knowing Eve and seeing her paint has been an influence. As important is living in a community where painting the figure is an activity that is accepted and taken for granted. It is possible to hire models here. They are college students usually. It is a flexible job that pays better than other jobs a student might find—yet I can still afford to hire them. It was more difficult to hire models in New York.

In the past, there was also a psychological barrier. I would have asked myself: "Why am I painting a stranger?" The explanation I give myself now is that the models are a stand in for my own life. I think I mentioned earlier that I feel I now have a life to paint. It feels natural and I believe in it. It is interesting to see an emotional component grow out of painting the figure. I guess I agree with you that the still life painting in the past have been much cooler.

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