He’s young, he’s rebel and in love with art. Brian Kenny is one of those people who was always meant to be what he is now: an artist. After spending his early years in rural areas of the US, he moved to New York where he discovered the art world, attended exhibitions, visited museums and galleries, and met Slava Mogutin, an exiled artist who turned his world around. He’s collaborated with controversial Bruce LaBruce, exhibited worldwide, and experimented with drawing, collage, photography, performance and, more recently, painting. With such an interesting background, we wanted to discover more about this life, thoughts and work.
When did you know you wanted to be an artist? If you weren’t so, what other job or profession would you like to have?
Since I was a child I have always been making art. All through school, Art class was always my favourite, but I was never was exposed to the contemporary art world. Both of my parents were in the US military and we moved around a lot in the US. But most of the places I lived were rural, far from big cities and art museums, so I had no idea who Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko, Chuck Close, David Hockney or Damien Hirst were. The few small art museums I visited as a child were full of old-school oil paintings; all life-like portraits, rural landscapes and historical recreations. It wasn’t until I met Slava and moved to New York that I began to meet artists, see exhibitions at art galleries of living artists near my age, and tour lot of contemporary art museums like MoMA and begin learning about contemporary art history. It was magical time and I felt like I had eaten the forbidden fruit and realised that, more than anything else, I wanted to become a visual artist. I started making art in earnest right away, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop. If I weren’t an artist, I’d probably be a personal trainer or massage therapist.
You studied at the Oberlin Conservatory. How did this education influence your artistic creation?
After high school I went to Oberlin Conservatory to study voice performance. As a classically trained opera singer, I can sing really loud and beautifully! Thankfully, I also learned how to write and read music at the conservatory. But I left music school because while the classical approach to music is wondrous, my heart wasn’t in it. I would often fall asleep watching operas, and performing in them wasn’t that much more exciting to me. So I took a break from music school, tried my hands at other kinds of work like real estate, and corporate work but eventually landed in New York, fell in love with an artist and the art world and began making art. However, learning how to compose music has helped a lot in the creation of soundtracks for my film works. I also hope to incorporate my singing voice into future art projects.
Looking at your work, we can see different techniques and themes, but they all have a sense of cohesion and coherence. How would you define your style?
My work is primarily expressionistic, autobiographical and deconstructive. My favourite way to make art is much like the process of automatic writing. I rarely know what I am going to make until I begin to make it. Sometimes I have a vague idea of what I want, but often I prefer to make it all up as I go along. The result often ends up being very personal, like a map or mash-up of my recent thoughts and experiences, or a reflection of my desires and dreams.
Name one of each that changed your life: a book, a film, a song/band, an artist, a person you met, and a place.
Book: Food Chain by Slava Mogutin
Film: Irreversible by Gaspar Noe
Band: Matmos
Person: Slava Mogutin
Place: my wonderful and insane home, New York City.
You’re a bit of a rebel, irreverent and controversial artist. How do you feel about it? Why do you fight against the status quo or the politically correct conventions?
Rebels are hot! Slava, Bruce LaBruce and Bjane Melgaard are my favourite rebel artists. I want tattoos. Are tattoos still rebellious? I don’t personally feel like a rebel or style myself as one. However I will exploit the permissive attitudes available to artists to say what I really fucking want to say, however explicit, un-PC, or creative they may be. Furthermore I think it’s healthy to continually rebel against old ideas, stale routines, complacency, or the status quo. I rebelled against drawing by starting to paint. I sewed an American flag with fallen stars to make a statement about my dissatisfaction with the fact that, at the time, equal rights were not given to gay couples in America. I’m rebelling against my obsession with masculinity but exploring transgender ideas both as an artist and as an audience, and have begun to finally accept and nurture the feminine side of myself.
The Guerrilla Girls stated that 85% of the nudes at the Met Museum were female (and only 5% of the artists exhibited were women). But that’s not your case! Why do you mainly use male bodies in your artworks? What inspires you most about men?
I’m mostly gay so I’m obviously hot for the male form. It’s hard-wired in me. My social world is also predominantly male, so my more autobiographical work will almost always feature men or male perspectives. Recently, and thankfully, that has begun to change is favour of a more omnisexual approach to sexuality and gender. More rebel and freaks! More chicks with dicks, and bros with pussies and boobs!
Artists such as Tom of Finland, Pierre et Gilles and James Bidgood have used homoerotic imagery in their works, and so do you. How have artists like them influenced your work? And what’s the aim behind using homoerotic scenes or references?
I’m very grateful to the pantheon of gay artists who came before me like James Bidgood, Jack Smith, David Wojnarowicz and Paul Cadmus. They were brave enough to make art that didn’t hide their desires, their story and their feelings in a world that didn’t accept homosexuality. It is because of their bravery and honesty that I feel freer to express myself without fear of persecution or censorship. I feel it’s important, as an artist, to use that freedom. Besides, homoerotic and other sexual scenes or references, to me, are really exciting and hot!
Along with Slava Mogutin, a Russian artist exiled because of his sexual orientation and political activism, you teamed up as SUPERM, a collaborative multimedia art team. Tell us more about it.
SUPERM is the third mind of Slava and myself. It’s our team name when we collaborate; our art love child. The name came from a reference to a tattoo on Slava’s back that, in Cyrillic, says SUPER MOGUTIN. We shortened this to SUPERM and began using the name when we began creating and exhibiting collaborative works. The goal of SUPERM is simply to explore, experiment and create art with the world. SUPERM is an open platform for creativity, a lightning field for experimentation in all media, and open to including other artists. In 2008, we presented a SUPERM show at our gallery in Norway with NY artist Gio Black Peter making paintings, video, sculpture and performance together. It was really exciting and inspiring! I really believe in collaboration or, at least, assisting other artists I admire. Besides the joy and excitement of creating unique artworks together that wouldn’t have otherwise happened by myself, it’s the best way to learn new techniques and refine existing practices.
If you could create an artwork with any artist (dead or alive), what would you do and with who?
I would love to make a pile of fast portraits with Picasso.
I wish I could stay up all night with Basquiat making messy paintings.
I could spend all day in the forest balancing rocks with Andy Goldsworthy.
Marilyn Manson scrubbed a USA flag on his ass and even burnt it in some of his concerts in order to make people think about the meaning and symbolism of a piece of clothing with stripes and stars. You deconstructed the American flag in four different ways (Fallen Stars, Out of Order, Bare Bones…). Do you relate to this specific Marilyn Manson’s act? Or is your aim completely different?
I have a lot of respect for Marilyn Manson, he’s an interesting artist and a smart guy. While his act was provocative and totally rebellious in spirit, I can relate to the notion of drawing attention to the idea that a flag’s meaning and status can be (and therefore should be) challenged, either by action or design.
I particularly love the series “Entropy Parade" in which you collaborated with Slava as SUPERM (it’s just a matter of personal taste). Tell us more about it.
I also love the Entropy Parade series. It is one of the best SUPERM collaborations we’ve done so far, as it was the perfect mix of my talent with drawing and Slava’s with photography. The project initially began as a fashion editorial for Flaunt Magazine, but as we went along, Slava and I realised we should extend the series and create a series of edition prints for the project that we could exhibit and sell outside the magazine context. We cast a number of friends and models as subjects and took portraits of them in our studio wearing completely ridiculous outfits; a mix of high-end fashion, like shirts, shoes and pants from Louis Vuitton, Prada, Thome Browne or Asher Levine, clothing and props from other artists, and lower brow items like cheap slutty lingerie, sports gear and crazy souvenirs like a stuffed crocodile hat from New Orleans. Then after we took the portraits, I sat down and made custom drawings for each photo that were layered on top of the photos in post-production. The result was literally a parade of beautiful men in a kind of visual chaos, or “entropy”.
The pieces of the series Head Rush are amazing! The arms and hands are in very odd positions (from mystic and spiritual, to sign language, one touching his nipples, etc.), the animals’ heads are on point, and above their heads are hash marks (like how many days have they spent in jail). How did you come up with the idea? What do they represent?
The entire series is a self-portrait. I’ve made one for each year I’ve been alive; which is counted off by the tally marks above the head. So far there are 32 and I will continue to add another each year, each time with a different animal head. I chose to use different animal heads as opposed to draw my own face over and over because it’s just more exciting to look at something new each time, as well personally characterise each year of my life as distinct. And I feel that hands are just as expressive as faces, so each year also gets a new gesture. The inspiration for the animals heads and various postures came from my interest in Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Chinese zodiac, the Tarot deck, Christian, Hindu and Buddhist iconography, Greek mythology and sign language of all kinds.
As you stated in social media: “new season, new website, new work”. In what projects are you currently working on?
Painting, painting and more painting!!! I am completely obsessed with painting. It’s very new for me. I only began to paint this year. I spent the last decade of my artistic practice with a focus on drawing. I’m very good at drawing and very comfortable with it; perhaps too comfortable… I’ve known for years that all the drawing would lead to painting and finally last winter I picked up the brush and began to paint. I’m still very much a beginner in painting, I realise; I have a lot to learn and I’m still in an exploratory transition phase where I’m learning to move from drawings to painted drawings to paintings. But I absolutely love the whole process. I feel that painting is a deeper, more challenging and richer medium than drawing. Drawing is so immediate, consistent, and flat, while painting is about layers, depth and finding a kind of simplicity through a more complex and lengthy process. I expect to continue painting for at least the next decade.
You’ve been working for many years and achieved a comfortable position as an artist. But how do you see yourself in five years?
In five years, I expect I’ll still be painting, just much, much better at it! Within 10 years, I also hope to expand into electronic and technological processes of art making, like 3d printing and holograms.