Courtney Kemp’s studio is a mess.
Under its layer of wood dust, the small room is nearly the size of her sculptures. The enormous lathe in the corner does nothing to open up the floor space. But from its cramped confines come carefully constructed creations that play on consumerism and the objects of daily ritual. In her new exhibition, Youth & Progress, Kemp steps away from the more architectural side of her practice to investigate the private side of growing up.Kemp’s work is all about activation through exploration. A tiny facet hidden to the side might serve as a catalyst for the entire body of work. The pink safety razor hidden under the milky residue of the shower curtains in Clean Sweep (2014) acts as a feminine counterpoint to the imposing sculptural structure. A pair of underwear, tucked into the vinyl of an emblazoned car seat in The Neighborhood’s Watching (2014), offer a wry smirk to the audience.
Concetto, conceit, the artist’s joke: so much a part of the history of art, this light-hearted addition is often a hidden component that requires further examination and careful looking. Breeze by with a cursory glance, and you’ll miss it. The esteemed art historian (and nun) Sister Wendy brought this to my attention in her Story of Painting program many years back. Pointing to a bare bottom protruding near a fire in a Medieval manuscript, she noted the figures warming their “lack of underpants” and chuckled in a droll sort of way. It’s not always the over-the-top joke that gets the laugh, nor is it the extremely obtuse reference that only some will get. Instead, a quick pun or the artistic equivalent of a knowing glance serves to activate the viewer and reinvigorate a reading of the piece.
But where does this humor lie? Kemp’s new sculptures are not festooned with punchlines and sight gags. The everyday objects used and referenced in her work are a carefully curated bunch. Seemingly simple compositions are actually adeptly handled tableaus that speak to the artist’s interest in directing the viewer’s attention. By working in sculpture, which inherently hides parts of itself from view at all times due to its three-dimensional nature, Kemp invites exploration and observation. One must look closely to grasp the subtle allusions or the quiet connections.
Traversing the expectations of polite society, Kemp’s new sculptures hint at the unseen processes of everyday rituals. Coming from a place of traditionally feminine aspects, the artist draws upon gender stereotypes and cultural allusions to the female condition. Your Best Shave Yet (2014) reads like an ad for the next multi-blade razor, and its pink tile-work compliments the pink Schick hung nearby. The wadded and layered shower curtain of Wet Slip (2014) alludes to our society’s quest for extreme cleanliness as an ideal. And in Hope Chest (2014), the long-outdated archival of bridal accoutrements throughout childhood gives way to a cheery, oozing structure that reads as part treasure chest and part cake.
Looking closer though, one realizes that the candy-colored frosting/paint substance in Hope Chest is, in fact, a meticulous layering of temporary tattoos. These childhood attempts at rebellion cohere into amass of homogenized and mutated images. The traditionally-perceived recklessness of tattooing is paired with the even more traditional practice of the hope chest. In its most innocuous form, this box of heirloom items is supposed to ready a young girl for her steady and balanced life as a woman, exactly like a real tattoo supposedly shouldn’t. But in the wake of women’s suffrage, the Feminist movements started in the 1970s, and an all out philosophical questioning of gender in the present day, it seems that preparing a girl for her adult life by looking backward to tradition is ill-advised. Would it not be more constructive for her to strike out and find herself (tattooed or not) instead of meekly following the steps prescribed by previous generations that had neither the access or the advantages that she does today? Kemp’s Hope Chest is no longer a place to stockpile for the future, it is a place to hide the past.
At their core, the works in Youth & Progress touch on how we shape our private lives through public actions. They are about the rules we abide by even when no one is watching. Peeking through the veil of Wet Slip’s translucent shower curtain or the mangled blinds of Neighborhood Watch, one may expect to see a clandestine scene unfold. Instead, we are met by concrete and our curiosity is stymied. There is a duality to Kemp’s new works. They hint at a secret space that we would like to access, but offer only the door that leads to this place and not the place itself. Referencing the unseen processes of the personal realm, these allusions also take shape in the conversation between the exhibition at Portland Center Stage and its counterpart at the Umpqua Valley Art Center in Roseburg.
Instead of thinking of these two exhibitions separately, or even in tandem, it is better to observe one continuous trajectory. Kemp looks at the Center Stage pieces as the initiating ideas. They are the child’s thoughts on what they should do, or what they are told to do, when they grow up. As the works transition into the Roseburg collection, “things turn a little bit dark or a little bit sexy,” says Kemp. Works like The Neighborhood’s Watching and Clean Sweep in Roseburg are the Center Stage ideas come to fruition and put into real world practice.By focusing on the lives of objects and the memories they conjure, Kemp is able to instill each work with a personality. Objects that ooze or reflect push out their inner thoughts or mirror their surroundings. The carpet-covered fan in Our Roof, Our Rules (2014) reflects the floor, the accidental ruining of the rug, and a swift retreat from the scene of the crime. In the adolescent/adult stages of the ideas, the memories speak more to a middle class coming of age story: the pink razor is the girl’s first shave, the Honda seat reads maybe as the site of lost virginity.
As citizens of a world shaped by consumerism and the media, our very lives have been molded by the products we enjoy (or are told to enjoy), images of ideal beauty, and a history of rules and regulations meant to uphold the status quo. While this might seem bleak, we are not without recourse. It is not every day that one questions the daily rituals and actions tangentially linked to an overarching societal structure. And it really isn’t helpful if we do it so much that we are sent into an existential panic. The more helpful way to proceed is to be aware. Be aware of the connections that are so often overlooked, and be mindful of their impact on your life. Just because something like showering frequently is societally-driven doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it.
Courtney Kemp’s Youth & Progress is on exhibition at Portland Center Stage in Portland (curated by Elizabeth Spavento) and Umpqua Valley Art Center in Roseburg (curated by Sandee McGee) through March 13th.