Joseph Kinnebrew might rank among the hardest workers in the art business, but he discounts the ultimate worth of his well-wrought finished objects. They are the carriers of his artistic philosophy which, to put it succinctly, is a celebration of ambiguity. The art of Joseph Kinnebrew is truly more than meets the eye. By design the surfaces and ostensible content of his paintings and sculptures is subversive. Kinnebrew has the right inveigling touch; he is something of a trickster who skillfully disarms the viewer.
The viewer always wants face value and Kinnebrew provides the semblance of it: in one of Kinnebrew’s “surreal” paintings as intense drama announces itself; there is eye candy, hedonistic beauty in a lush flower painting; rigorous minimalist ‘less is more’ principles inform an abstract sculpture and crazy, free-associative humor sculptures that bring together disparate objects like a pear on a roller skate. Kinnebrew frustrates these wishes to type his work according to category. He is using his mastery of these different disciplines to capture and hold the viewers interest. But he is trying to, hopefully, make you see past the surface and into a world in which things aren’t really what they seem. On more than one occasion he has invoked Alice in Wonderland as a paradigm.
The fact that his work is so various should be a clue to that fact that his sincerity is not of the straightforward sort. Rather he is sincere about overturning the usual, pat reading of things. For example he calls his figurative paintings surrealist. But surrealism, in fact became a historical style decades ago, as its founder Andre Breton predicted it would. Through familiarity (as well as the horrors of the real world) it has lost its power to shock and its ultimate value is as a reminder of an era when probing the unconscious was a thrilling event.
Kinnebrew’s pastiche of Surrealism contains strong echoes of the masters, especially Dali, Delvaux and Magritte. Original Surrealism capitalized on the enthusiasm for Freud and the probing of the unconsciousness. The “surreal” paintings of Kinnebrew almost all have dark, lurid backgrounds, the counterpart of surrealism’s deep space. Kinnebrew’s pushing the fantastic evokes black velvet paintings a kind of art that also conveys tackiness. Tackiness is an ironic strategy; it makes his paintings alluring.
Paradoxically, the seeming intensity of the situations Kinnebrew creates signals that not too much time should be spent on interpreting the paintings with the standard art history criteria. The exacerbated situations are appearances, appearances in the large sense in that nothing is absolute. It has always been known that painting is illusion and Kinnebrew’s reminds us again of this in a more intense way. A touchstone of reality, a true, enduring element in the paintings, is the ubiquitous black and white checkerboard that takes many forms. It is a reminder that things ineluctably become their opposite: dark becomes light, male becomes female.
Kinnebrew’s flowers would seem to be more rooted in common reality. Flowers are one of painting’s oldest subjects. But Kinnebrew endows his flowers with a special sexiness; you don’t contemplate the passive beauty but sense a restlessness to seduce. They also seem to be not-quite-grounded. Without presenting the least sign of decay, Kinnebrew reminds us that flowers are ephemeral and apparitional.
Kinnebrew’s startling range also takes in minimalist sculpture. (Not shown in this brochure.) At first it would seem that Kinnebrew’s contribution to this genre is devoid of the kind of drama that results from the clash of disparate objects, But the abstract elements combine in odd ways, they often huddle together, and we get the idea that despite their innate physical strength they are at heart vulnerable.
The smaller bronze sculptures featuring pears would seem to be the essential Kinnebrew. With the pear as a kind of surrogate, he can indulge in voluptuousness. Other fruits may be round, but the pear has curves. Kinnebrew takes it out of its familiar role as a placid still-life subject and gives it many chances to kick up its heels, those heels being attached to shapely legs.
In always reminding us of the possibility of “something else” or “another way” Joseph Kinnebrew is an unsettling artist. His work is the 800-pound gorilla, impossible to ignore.
New York City
William Zimmer writing about Joseph Kinnebrew
(William Zimmer has been an art critic for the New York Times for 25 years. He is well known in international art circles)