Matt Kenyon hasn’t touched a canvas in a long time.
“It was a strange kind of flashback, even just the tactile part of it,” says the renowned artist, educator and TED Fellow. This month, he is adding Baton Rouge Gallery to his impressive resume of exhibition galleries—and the first in his hometown of Baton Rouge.
The “tactile part” he’s referring to is the canvas-stretching process he used on a selection of three paintings to prep them for display at the Baton Rouge Gallery’s “Cloudburst” exhibition. The display comprises about a dozen works in a variety of mediums from throughout his career, touching on subjects ranging from housing insecurity to climate change. There’s even an installation, “Tide,” inspired in part by flooding that devastated the Capital Region in 2016. Preview some of the pieces here.
As for the paintings, they come from his time in undergrad at Southeastern University, when he still “very much identified with being a painter”—an identity he’s since outgrown, and an era he’s not revisited in some time.
Now, for an artist to display paintings might not seem particularly unique. But for Kenyon, who for the past two decades has favored tools like coding, engineering, data mining, mathematics and biomechanics to the traditional brush and canvas, those three paintings form what he calls a kind of “mini retrospective” of his work before he found his groove as an artist.
“We’re always moving fast and thinking of the next thing,” he says. “To have a moment to kind of reflect, personally, has been pretty moving.”
Kenyon is something of a special case when it comes to moving fast and thinking of the next thing. Each of his works is some combination of physical metaphor, performance art, social critique and subversive civil disobedience. Through these works (and usually with the aid of some technology that would boggle the mind of the average person) he strives to probe and reflect the real world in real time, like his “Spore 1.1” piece, a mechanical ecosystem that fed or starved a plant he purchased from Home Depot based on the value of Home Depot stocks. Or there’s “Tap,” which is, among other things, a kitchen sink … spouting a fire … and the fire talks about fracking.
That proclivity for the novel and unexpected has earned Kenyon a permanent seat at the vanguard of contemporary art. His works have graced the Museum of Modern Art in New York; ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe (in Germany); the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit; and numerous others, and have even been seen in The New York Times. But for all his heavyweight acclaim, Kenyon says he maintains a “complicated relationship with prestige.”
“I’ve had the chance to show my work at … all these different high-end places, as well as the gallery down the street in the city I live in, in Buffalo,” Kenyon says. “Being able to have the flexibility to move across those different communities is important to me.”
Baton Rouge is one community Kenyon has wanted to share his work with for a while now. It’s fitting, he says, that his first exhibition in his hometown would also be his most extensive yet. He says he looks forward to finally bringing his art to the people who have supported him since the beginning—and to the place that first inspired him, where distant brigades of “petrochemical refineries right on the landscape” first induced him to ponder new modes of observing, critiquing and existing in a scarred—but, he says, not unsalvageable—world.
“Cloudburst” will commence with an Opening Wednesday reception at Baton Rouge Gallery Aug. 3, from 6-9 p.m., and will remain on display during normal gallery hours (Tuesday-Sunday, noon-6 p.m.) until Aug. 31. To learn more about the exhibit, visit batonrougegallery.org/cloudburst-kenyon.