Marcus Kenney has called Savannah home since the mid-’90s, when he moved here from his hometown in Louisiana to attend Savannah College of Art and Design for his master's in photography. But it hasn't been until relatively recently that he's truly embraced his home on the Georgia coast.
His upcoming exhibition “Look! I'm Over There” at Laney Contemporary, which opens Nov. 16, is Kenney's first solo show in Savannah in five years and finds him coming to terms with his place as an artist in the southeast. It also represents a somewhat new direction in his artwork.
“There are a lot of references to the Lowcountry,” says Kenney. “Just living here for 25 years, I've never really explored living here in my work... This is the first time I've really sort of accepted that I live in Savannah. Well, not really, but a lot of my work before was bigger, more American culture, bigger picture culturally. This is just about trying to keep it in the [Savannah] bubble.
“I don't know where else I would live. I'm not relinquishing my Louisiana ties, but just accepting Savannah... I think this is sort of my coming out party. It feels good.”
The exhibition is also a departure from the work Kenney has become known for — his metaphorical painting collages and mixed media taxidermy sculptures. You'll find none of that in “Look! I'm Over Here.” What you will find is an exhilarating series of mostly large-scale sculptural pieces constructed of found objects like rusty paint cans, fishing nets, and old buoys, accented with bright neon lighting, which adds a sort of strange and intoxicating flourish to the entire body of work. The juxtaposition of the aged, hard-worn found objects with the glow of neon produces a certain sensory thrill that's both ruminative and visually titillating.
“I kind of think of these as poems in a way,” says Kenney. “I'm just trying to create these little moments. It's not anything really profound or groundbreaking... The neon itself is so mesmerizing that your eyes are just so attracted to it. I'm just trying to create these spaces for the viewer to really sort of meditate and take these moments.”
This new direction in Kenney's current work isn't so much a profound change of heart as it is a slight shift in perspective for him as an artist.
“I think that with my other work I was trying to tackle these big social issues or political issues and larger-than-life things, and with this body of work it's more personal. It's about smaller things. There's no references to anything larger. It's just internal and that's why I like these meditations. It's freeing and I honestly think it's what the world needs right now... I just want to make pretty things. I want to make things that give people a chance to breathe and think about something other than what's going on outside these doors.
“I look at what I do sort of like being a chef. You have these recipes that you're good at. You can cook these things without even trying sometimes and you're always sort of adding new recipes to your repertoire. So now I have a new ingredient to work with.”
“This work is building on what he has done before in a completely new way and has taken an incredible turn,” says gallery director Susan Laney. “We are excited about the talent that is here in Savannah and it is part of our mission to foster it so that Savannah continues to be a viable place for artists to call home. We exhibit work that we are passionate about.
"I have been following Marcus' career since the beginning. I hung his thesis exhibition at SCAD back in 1998 and sold one of his first assemblages around that same time. I have watched his work grow as it has been presented in big cities, major museums, and art fairs and have always been a huge fan of the sculptures, the collages, and the photography. Watching his work evolve has been remarkable and now being able to present a solo show of this new body of work here at Laney Contemporary is incredibly exciting.”
Kenney says he isn't abandoning any of the styles he's become known for, but as an artist he needs to stretch different creative muscles.
“I still enjoy the storytelling aspects of that work, but one of the great things about being an artist is being your own boss,” says Kenney. “We can do whatever we decide to do that day. And I just wasn't enjoying the collaging that much, but I'm sure I'll do it again.”
There will be a reception for “Look! I'm Over There” from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Nov. 16, and Kenney will conduct an artist talk at the gallery Jan. 24. For those who know and love Kenney's previous work, the current exhibition should expand their appreciation of his artistic vision. And for those who aren't as familiar, you're in for quite a visual treat.
Whether intentionally or not, Kenney represents the sort of idiosyncratic charm that makes Savannah so special.
“It's really sort of a city of misfits. You can really be yourself here.”
Kristopher Monroe is a writer documenting the intersection of art and community. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @savartscene.