Dave Kennedy has worked for many years as a professional photographer, but his current exhibition in Pioneer Square is his first solo foray into the art world. Kennedy’s pictures features dramatically-lit, carefully staged scenarios clearly inspired by the contemporary cinema, but there’s more going on in these crisp color photographs than meets the eye. KUOW art critic Gary Faigin joins us with his take on Kennedy’s work.
The modern cinema is a key point of departure for many contemporary photographers, including Seattle artist Dave Kennedy. Kennedy’s striking set pieces are meant to appear like a frozen moment in a much longer story, and his attention to costume, lighting, and most especially location, is very directorial in its sweep. In another nod to the movies, several of the images appear set in motion, with a repeated figure suggesting an action seen over time.
There are many precedents for this work, from the massively influential French photographer of childhood dramas Bernard Faucon, to the equally theatrical “Untitled Film Stills” of Cindy Sherman. An even closer parallel is with the photographer Anthony Goicolea (recently on view at the Frye), who uses digital manipulations to place multiple versions of the same figure in provocative, seamlessly produced tableaus of adolescent sexuality.
Like Goicolea, Kennedy uses the magic of Adobe Photoshop to create totally convincing fictions, with barely a stray pixel to spoil the effect. And like Goicolea, he is fascinated with the idea of using the same actor to play several roles within the same image. This device, in fact, is one of the work’s strongest points, saving several of the images from what might otherwise be a banal or overly-familiar result.
An example of an image saved from banality is the life-during-wartime photograph entitled simply Interrogation. In the picture, a bloodied and bound female prisoner is awaiting a renewal of questioning while her captor takes a smoke break in the distance. The scene is clearly – too clearly - inspired by recent press coverage of America’s mistreatment of its Middle Eastern captives, but Kennedy has taken things one step further by utilizing a doppelganger instead of a second actor. My dictionary defines “doppelganger” as a “literary device by which a character is duplicated and divided into two distinct, usually opposite personalities”, and here the polarities are represented by captive and captor: the same model, in exactly the same clothing.
The photograph is thus both topical and philosophical, since it brings up issues of inner conflict and betrayal without letting the American military off the hook, perhaps suggesting a national betrayal as well as a personal one. Interrogation also shares with the rest of the show a powerfully focused compositional sense, always revolving around a starkly appropriate setting – here an abandoned building with a bizarre cross-shaped concrete trench incised in its floor - and precise, moody light, illuminating out just the main characters and nothing else.
Equally stark is Kennedy’s minimalist color sense, with most of the images dominated by deep zones of shadow and battleship grey, plus a few spots of bright color – blue is a favorite –picked out by the surgical light. Sometimes a single color dominates, as in the photograph Monzell-Military. This image, another exploration of the doppelganger theme, is almost entirely red except for the contorted visage of local actor Monzell Lewis, his skin a blotch of purple and grey whiteface, his fists clenched, his wild eyes staring into ours. His shadowy double also assumes a boxer’s stance in the distance beyond another spectral cross, this time a scuffed and barely visible pattern on the floor. The belligerent expression on Monzell’s face is comically exaggerated, as though expressing the absurdity of his predicament, trapped in a nightmare of self, warning us to not get involved.
A different sort of internal adventure is suggested by photographs of women in the throes of out-of-the-body experience. In the more riveting of these pictures, Blue Gown, we are witnesses to some species of nocturnal crisis. A woman in a nightdress staggers about a damp back porch, appearing four times in stylized attitudes of resignation or despair. At dead center – Kennedy does not wear his religious attitudes lightly – the helpless sleepwalker levitates into a crucifixion pose, with a grey ceiling joist standing in for the cross. In a powerful formal element, the four converging lines of the floor and ceiling create an X, of which she is the apex. We aren’t given any clues as to what has led up to this sacrificial reenactment, or the force that is hoisting her airborne, but if this isn’t precisely death and transfiguration, it’s awfully close.
As someone engrossed in the world of painting and sculpture, I rarely review exhibits of photography. But what initially attracted me to Kennedy’s work is how closely it adheres to the practices of traditional art, particularly the Catholic painting of the Baroque. Artists like Peter Paul Rubens and Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio were like the Spielbergs and DeMilles of their own era, using costume, setting, and illumination to create searing dramas of martyrdom and renewal, completely synthetic images meant to linger on in the memory and appeal to a mass audience. In his own engaging creation of modern melodramas Kennedy has - consciously or not - tapped into an appropriate source.