Spotlight on James Kenney

James Kenney has a decades-long, varied practice in art – from painting, to design, to film. Now he is applying his experience to fine-art photography that goes beyond pointand-shoot.

What are your influences?

I went through painting school ending in the earliest 90s, and I was an odd-one-out there in a traditional program. But what stuck was an intense exploration of form, and most importantly, composition. My main painting mentor, Ronald Markman, had studied with Joseph Albers. He was able to breakdown master examples of composition by covering different areas of a painting with his hands, to show us how areas worked contrastingly and yet within the unified whole. He loved to have us follow a line in a painting to see how it would move through a composition and yet shift and change on its journey. It was like looking at a painting in slow motion. These lessons I am still absorbing.

Who are artists that have influenced you?

Vuillard, Larry Rivers, Poussin… and I’m influenced by my times, which spans the shift from analog to digital. As a child, my favorite place was my grandparent’s house in Wisconsin (this became the subject of my first film, This Side Out, when mini-DV was brand new in 1998). The house was like going back in time to the old country. My grandfather worked for the railroad and had a Polka band. He and my grandmother slept in separate rooms, but when I visited I would get his room, and above the bed was a “painting” that I still have – of a country railway station. At that age, I didn’t understand that it was just a cheap print on chipboard. Some late nights, an actual train would run behind their house, shaking the room and streaking it with light that illuminated this painting above his bed. What should have been a night terror became a thrill of my connection to the history of the painting and to trains. The process of that printed painting had limits in its range of values and colors – like dairy products gone sour. Those qualities have influenced my latest photography work – mud and colors that are difficult to name.

So, your work is throwing backward?

Yes, I have old-man gripes with the contemporary discounting of complexity as a more realistic representation of our experience. I do not believe that art should be exclusively an escape or fantasy. Beyond that role, it can reflect curated aspects of unnoticed actuality.

In a commercial world, technically-clear environments communicate what is to be digested. But what are we neglecting by looking at fantasy worlds that have simplified rules? Do viewers today avoid incompleteness, preferring to ingest purified products? Safe compositions don’t challenge figure/ground relationships or the implication that the pictorial space extends beyond the picture’s boundaries – that the world is larger and unknowable. Noise, dirt, and artifacts are dismissed as technical in-proficiency. We are presented complete-clean-object-worlds in neutral-unconsidered-space. My photos attempt an abstract representation of the every day – to show not what something is, but what else it might be. The actuality of the photo remains real – i do not add or delete – but primarily adjust color and tone to search for additional truths in the image composition and story. My photos are closer to what painting explored after photography killed its role as documenter.

What challenges your creativity the most?

The void. I’ve always needed something to react to. I’m not a natural maker, but rather, I am able to assess for myself whether something works or not. Therefore, I often edit within many arbitrary gestures. This was true in painting, where I would mostly make wild marks on the surface and see what developed; and it’s true in my photography, in that I take many images but only chose relatively few that I feel I can enhance in composition, color, and pattern – within series of visual languages.

What triggered your shift from painting to photography and film?

I stopped painting (which was really drawing and collage) in the 90’s as the world became digital and I started working professionally in design and film. I was intrigued to explore more language content than my painting could provide. I think that this happens as we age; we have more to say. However, my early films were still mostly formal – I framed shots statically like painting, weighing composition over movement.

When did you start writing and how does it relate to
your visual work?

It is only within the last 15 years that I have become a reader, getting past a reading disability that was never recognized. So my new-ish love for books also translates to me wanting to work with words. My first real writing opportunity came when I participated in a collaborative international documentary, Searching for Hell. The Polish producers suggested that each filmmaker write a chapter in a book, detailing our productions in severe locations. Additionally, I’m on the second draft of my first full book. It sparked from one moment in my life a few years ago. I probably wrote the first twenty-thousand words in three days. The problem is that I wrote the rest of the book, over the next year, in no order; and I feel compelled to edit it into a proper order, because it’s already odd enough.

Was there anyone in your family that inspired what you are doing today?

I took care of my mother when she was given a terminal diagnosis. I moved back into my family home. In that time, when work was on hold, I crunched a lot of numbers to see if I could change my life – to get out of the city rut I was in. My mom died as I moved into the woods on a mountain, and since then I have been exploring what I want artistically.

How do you see yourself evolving in the future?

I’m probably going to end up back at painting. I have recurring dreams of returning to painting school, to finish. I had always intended to get my MFA in painting, but life went another direction. And yet, my constant dreams tell me that there is something unresolved there. When I went through BFA painting school, there was a lot of pressure from the faculty to define why you were painting? I think that I realize now that they were likely also looking for that answer. My dreams are a worry that there is no answer.

To explore the films, photography, and writing of James Kenney, visit

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