Arnold Kemp Awarded Guggenheim


MFA in Visual Studies Chair Arnold J. Kemp is awarded a Fellowship in Fine Arts from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

Just before he was scheduled to do a poetry reading at SFMOMA last year in response to a work in the collection as part of the Pop-Up Poets Series for the exhibition The Steins Collect, Arnold Kemp discovered that Mary Heilmann’s “Fire and Ice Remix” had been taken off view.

“I asked the Museum to project an image of the painting on a blank wall,” Kemp says. He printed copies of the painting which he gave to the audience. Some were in color. Some in black and white. He told the audience that before he would read, they had to take a minute to try to transform the projection into the actual painting. “I turned away and was silent,” Kemp says. “For 40 seconds I didn’t say a thing. And then I turned around and the projection was still the projection and not the painting. And I said to them, ‘Your faith in art is not strong enough.’”


Arnold J. Kemp with one of his “aluminums” in his SE Portland studio. Photo: Matt Miller.

Arnold Kemp’s faith in art has sustained him through a 20-year career that has incorporated studio and curatorial practice, poetry practice, and an academic career. Kemp has regularly had solo exhibitions in San Francisco and New York while serving as the assistant curator for visual art at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts from 1993-2003, while completing his MFA at Stanford University, and while teaching, currently as Chair of PNCA’s MFA program in Visual Studies. His work is in the collections of The Studio Museum in Harlem and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This week it was announced that Kemp was awarded a Fellowship in Fine Arts from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.


Arnold J. Kemp in his SE Portland studio. Photo: Matt Miller.

Kemp has previously received a Pollock Krasner Foundation Grant and Joan Mitchell Foundation Fellowship, a Cite International Des Arts Paris Residency and a Pen Writers Grant. The Guggenheim Fellowship will allow Kemp to travel to Berlin to do research in the Adrian Piper Research Archive with the plan to create a performative lecture on Piper’s work and his own.

“Before I was at Yerba Buena, I worked at New Langton Arts, and we did a major exhibition with Adrian Piper, Black Box White Box.” It was 1993, after the Rodney King beating. “It was my first contact with her work,” Kemp says.

“I had long been doing drawings with a relationship to minimalism. They were drawings of African masks and sculptures. I was tracing a line from Picasso and Matisse straight through to Judd. And I thought people would think I was crazy,” Kemp says. “Then I read, ‘The Logic of Modernism’ by Adrian Piper. She made me feel like I wasn’t crazy.”


Arnold J. Kemp in his SE Portland studio. Photo: Matt Miller.

Not crazy, no, but when he was in his combined BA/BFA program at Tufts University and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, he was told by a professor that he was, “too smart to be an artist.” Regardless, he graduated Magna cum Laude and became an artist.

“My father didn’t want me to be an artist,” Kemp says. “The only well-known artist we knew had not been recognized by the art world until he was 90. My father thought I wouldn’t be recognized until I was 90.”

“I’m a first generation American,” Kemp says. “My lineage is Caribbean. My mother is of Panamanian descent and my father is from the Bahamas. She came to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and my father attended Morehouse, the Black Harvard. My whole family speaks multiple languages and believes in reading.”


Arnold J. Kemp in his SE Portland studio. Photo: Matt Miller.

Kemp has been writing poems as long as he has been making art. He began both in high school, getting serious about making art in 9th grade. He has made a series of text paintings. And he continues to write and publish while making work, curating, and exhibiting. Asked whether he was ever pressured to choose between writing and making art, Kemp replies, “When I was an undergraduate, my professor, Deborah Digges, told me not to choose. She was a big influence on me. I’ve always been more influenced by writers than visual artists.”

This sense of hybridity extends throughout his art practice. Kemp calls himself a sculptor though he shows his sculptures in the form of photographs, and makes paintings in the manner of a sculptor, building up surfaces with media that include paint, vinyl, glitter, plastic eyes. “I like the idea of coming at things from all different angles, with multiple solutions, of complicating my older works, taking them apart.”


Arnold J. Kemp in his SE Portland studio. Photo: Matt Miller.

In the recent series of what Kemp calls “aluminums” or large-scale photographs of crinkled aluminum foil masks with lopsided holes for eyes and mouths, Kemp has, in his words, “moved the painting to the frame.” On view at the Portland2012 Biennial, each of the works in the series (there are twelve, total) is framed in a slightly different shade of grey. Kemp says, “In New York I showed a series of aluminums called ‘Don’t Make Friends.’ It was a note to self not to make friends with my work. At the Biennial, the series is called ‘Who’s Afraid of Something Real?’ I think about freedom and emotion, things less visibile or invisible but really there. Moving the painting to the frame is about trying to look at something not visible, but something real. They are meant to challenge.”

A kind of expansiveness in thinking beyond and through false frames and flimsy walls extends beyond Kemp’s art practice. As a curator of visual art at Yerba Buena, Kemp brought in performance, poetry, and music. “The last thing I did at Yerba Buena was to install Matmos, let them use the gallery as studio.” The duo spent 97 hours at Yerba Buena, making music with friends, guests, and onlookers.


Chair, Arnold J. Kemp in a crit session with the MFA in Visual Studies candidates in the MFA Gallery at PNCA. Photo: Matt Miller.

It’s a kind of expansiveness that translates into generosity. In 2007, when Kemp was an artist-in-residence for the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s (PICA) Time-Based Art Festival (TBA), he did a project called Daydream Nation: Suspiria Version for which he did both an exhibition of his black monochrome paintings and curated a show of work he had invited Portland artists to create in response to Daria Argento’s classic underground horror film, Suspiria. As an educator, Kemp is generous with time and with connecting his students to his art network, bringing artists to PNCA for studio visits and lectures, and taking his students to New York for studio visits. “A big part of teaching for me is to introduce students to art world personalities and professionals. The vision for the visiting artist lecture series here is that we bring people who aren’t just giving lectures, but are spending time in seminar, in studios, and interacting socially.”

Kemp first came to Portland from New York in 2006 for another lecture series. Harrell Fletcher invited Kemp for the Portland Monday Night Lecture Series co-sponsored by PSU and PICA. “Kristan Kennedy and MK Guth were there. It was a two-hour long performance.” Kennedy, the visual arts curator for PICA, invited Kemp to do a residency in Portland for the 2007 TBA Festival.


Chair, Arnold J. Kemp in a crit session with the MFA in Visual Studies candidates in the MFA Studios at PNCA. Photo: Matt Miller.

“When I showed at TBA,” Kemp says, “my show was in the Commons at PNCA. At that time Tom [Manley, President of PNCA] approached me and said, ‘I feel like we just started a conversation, and you should stay in touch.’” In 2009 Kemp came to PNCA again, this time as the first visiting artist for the new MFA in Visual Studies program. Kemp became Chair of the MFA in Visual Studies program in 2009.

In 2003, Kemp left Yerba Buena for graduate school. “Going to Stanford was the best thing I ever did for myself. They only take five people a year. And it’s free. It’s almost like a residency with the time and space to research. And the library there! I am still working on ideas I discovered there. I got to think more deeply about conceptual art and race, about the emotional and intellectual life.”


Arnold J. Kemp in his SE Portland studio. Photo: Matt Miller.

In April, Kemp will have a solo exhibition at Margaret Tedesco’s Second Floor Projects. In May, he will have a solo exhibition at ME∑A Gallery in Portland. Each exhibition will be accompanied by a new artist book. In September, four of Kemp’s aluminums will be in a group show at Louis B. James gallery in New York. Kemp is represented by PDX Contemporary, which will present a show of his work in 2013.

Thelma Golden included Kemp in the Freestyle exhibition at The Studio Museum in Harlem in 2001. “The exhibition framed a whole generation of post-Glenn Ligon, post-Lorna Simpson African American artists who came of age in the multicultural generation of the 80s,” Kemp says. “She framed it as ‘Post Black,’ and we were questioning what the label meant. Some of us started to make work to push against the notion of ‘Post Black.’”

“What I showed for Freestyle were big drawings that had come out of that earlier series of African mask works. These were big piles of roosters that were images of photos of sculpture from Benin,” says Kemp. “The next time I showed in New York, I showed the Klan hoods.”

“A number of us wanted to push against this idea. It’s not exactly about race, but it’s about what it means to be a racialized Black artist. To push against the roles or stereotypes of what people might normally think about when they think about prominent Black Americans. There is the Black athlete. There’s Hollywood, theater, and dance. But the Black artist or Black painter is not in the public consciousness. The Black painter is something I’m really interested in. Sometimes I feel (and many from Freestyle feel this way), I felt framed in a funny way as a Black artist. David Hammond calls “Black artist” an oxymoron, you’re really behind the eight ball.”

“I keep trying to be free to make work. I want to determine its frames. My work is about my being free.”

by Lisa Radon, Communications Specialist

— Posted on 04/27 at 02:54 PM

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