The constant artist

The Masters in Fine Arts Monday night lecture series continued this week with a lecture by Bay Area artist Arnold J. Kemp. Kemp has been an active part in the Bay scene for more than a decade as an artist and writer as well as in his 10-year role as the associate curator for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts – one of the most viable and groundbreaking nonprofit galleries in the Bay Area.

Of Kemp’s many roles and many incarnations, his lecture Monday concentrated on a survey of his visual work, but as the night progressed it became apparent that despite his distinct and separate incarnations, Kemp’s process transcends borders. For Kemp the art is in the method, and in that way his separate roles within the art community appear seamlessly interactive. From discussion about his curatorial roles to the slides of his visual work to the poetry he read, Kemp revealed that he, as an artist, is constant in his work.

As a speaker Kemp was composed and engaging, at times self-effacing and above all else aware. For Kemp, work is about process, from his earliest drawings exploring the role of African sculpture in the development of 20th century art movements to his most recent attempts at making truly black (in hue!) paintings, Kemp’s work is constantly evolving. To listen to Kemp speak, the soul of the work seems to lie not just in the completed piece but also in the space surrounding it. Each piece, as it interacts with viewers, with curators and with Kemp himself evolves, grows in its nuances, giving his work a sense of the current, despite where it may lay on his personal timeline. In fact halfway through the lecture Kemp was dismayed that his slides were in chronological order, and on more than one occasion spoke of recent personal revelations he’d had about pieces more than a decade old. His work comments on society as a whole, not just the African American’s role within it, and as society shifts and changes so does the role of commentary, giving each piece a lifelong viability.

Visually, Kemp’s work runs the gamut. From drawings to film to painting to photography and sculpture, the medium always feels second to the meaning and process. In the process of pieces recreating Ku Klux Klan hoods in traditional African fabrics, Kemp found that the development of the prototype in paper was just as heavy in theme as the finished work itself. Rather than a simple commentary on racism, the work explores the masks of the everyday, the roles we play and the way we present ourselves to the world.

Drawings of the artist as Richard Pryor carried personal and social weight, celebrating Pryor’s role in the breaking down of stereotypes within the black community as well as the comedian’s role in Kemp’s own life. As a comment on people’s expectations of him as an African American artist, Kemp began painting “black” as a color, and in turn discovered new materials and abilities in his discourse. One of the Pryor drawings was revisited, painted and collaged, and suddenly the piece took on new life, and built on its meaning.

Material seems a major theme in Kemp’s work. His use of nontraditional craft pieces, from stick-on “googley eyes” and jewels to glitter and powders developed for antiquing, each material is stripped of convention and takes on new life in Kemp’s work. He reincarnates himself, and laughs openly at his conscious shifts in perception over the years. “Then I decided to become a painter,” Kemp laughed, speaking about the more recent “black” paintings realizing that in retrospect, seemingly profound shifts meld seamlessly into a body of work. It’s all a matter of process.

And therein lies the success of Kemp’s lecture. To see a survey of such complex and meaning-laden work, a decade’s worth of ideas, flowing freely into one another with the artist along to explain the details of the process is a rare privilege. And with Kemp an artist who so vividly and lucidly traverses the realms of conceptual and social commentary, the lecture transcends his work alone and begins delving into the way we see art and its role in our lives.