The paintings of James Kennedy are intriguing, dignified, and beautifully crafted. Formal but never predicable, their subject is space. With training in modern art, dance, and architectural design, he has created a personal language of form and color. Kennedy’s approach is both deliberate and intuitive. He experiments with painting materials, choreographs relationships among eccentric hard-edged shapes, and builds diagrams of incised lines and small black dots to achieve complex surface and spatial interactions.
As well described by the artist, “these paintings address a fascination with essential structures and arrangements, whilst exploring the linguistics of music, mathematics, dance and architecture. Pattern recognition and manipulation are common themes, and involve the resolution of space within my own abstract vocabulary, in essence, solving spatial equations through paint.”
Neither representational nor referential, Kennedy’s paintings are exactingly specific in appearance and endlessly suggestive in affect. Kennedy’s complex process results in a rich visual experience that is orderly, balanced, and rhythmic. Human in scale, with dimensions such as 64 x 64, 37 x 60, 64 x 52 inches, they are comfortably approachable. The white or black frames and over-layer of varnish emphasize the physicality of the painting, but the forms remain elusive, never coalescing into a single identifiable picture.
The paintings remain engaging because they are based on four apparent and interdependent systems of image making. Their character reflects the unique process of their making rather than a preexisting idea or external object.
James Kennedy sees himself in the artistic traditions of both alchemist and master craftsman. With no preliminary drawings, he begins by covering masonite with washes of acrylic paint. The backgrounds are customarily a mixture of titanium white, medium gray, titanium buff, and yellow ochre. Next, Kennedy seamlessly applies emulsions, glazing, and scraping to build up individual planes. Varying hues, tints and values of tertiary colors are subtly modulated by density of pigment, dilution, and overlay to create a tonal structure across the surface. The absence of visible brushstrokes gives each work an ethereal quality.
Kennedy’s distinctive palette features ochre over azurite, sienna and medium orange over ochre, raw umber and graphite powder over white, cerulean and manganese blues, and gray greens made up of medium grays, green oxide, buff and terra verde. The blacks that provide dramatic incidents throughout the composition are often mixed with deep violet to increase their intensity. These unrealistic colors are used to define non-repetitive shapes and spaces that are, alternatively, linear, curved, jagged, and straight edged.
Knowledgeable about the art of the past and his own history, Kennedy says that the color and blending techniques that he developed to modulate dark and light in his Moodscape series (2006-2009) help him create the “tonal space” that his “systems inhabit.” He explains that “the serendipitous convergence of space, color, and the lines that dissect them, form the core structure of the work.”
Perfectly straight lines are scored (in keeping with the artist’s interest in dance notation) into the masonite, creating trajectories and constellations whose patterns complement, complicate and enliven the arrangement of colored shapes. The lines serve as edges that redefine the painted forms, create architectural scaffolding, and provide directional energy.
Precise vector dots of black gouache, acrylic and varnish are added at the end. These accents multiply the relationships among the colored planes and incised lines, as well as creating rhythmic signals that lead the eye across the composition. The light touch and relatively random placement of the dots provides a relief from the obsessive cuts into the masonite.
All of James Kennedy’s recent paintings are based on these four systems, articulated differently in terms of color, surface, spatiality, regularity, complexity, density, geometry, and tone. Positive and negative space, as well as light and dark are evenly distributed. .
Sum of Parts is comprehensive in revealing Kennedy’s means of handling paint through overlap, scraping, solid pigment, and veils of color. Different kinds of distinct shapes, painted lines, nebulous space, and unexpected colors are carefully displayed, horizontally and vertically. There is little regularity of arrangement, but an asymmetrical balance is maintained with the disparate notations and painterly passages.
Several works that share a basic palette of greys and browns – highlighted with white and black – reveal the impressive range of Kennedy’s language. In Reciprocal Arrangement, the curvilinear shapes at first seem to dominate the rectangular, the lighter larger areas of pinkish tan look more prominent than the dark, light and medium grey planes bordering them, and the painted horizontal lines are more obvious than the incised vertical lines, but, over time, you see that all these elements mutually determine the space Kennedy has constructed.
Multiple levels of paint give spatial depth and color resonance, while glazing brightens paint that is more thinly applied. Dilution Diagram is a virtuoso demonstration of flowing tonality, syncopated by curvilinear silhouetted forms that echo one another like shadows.
Kennedy explains: “The light and shade in this respect are directly proportionate to the thickness of media sitting on the surface of the masonite. So the dilution is in control of how much background is revealed, and for me that is the most important part of my paintings....the "landscape," the tonal changes across the surface ….[This is] the emotional side of the paintings, and the application of gesture and positioning of the non-specific foreground graphics is the whimsical and less serious aspect.”
In Flybywire, which is a vertical rectangle rather than a square, the incised lines hold attenuated forms in a state of suspended animation. Upper Level Hierarchy is a spatial construct that is blocked off in the center by five horizontal planks of opaque paint. This work, which was made after the death of Kennedy’s father, is measured and meditative, where Dilution Diagram is witty and Flybywire is daring in spirit.
Telegraph and Blue Print to an Open Sky are the most high key of James Kennedy’s 2011 works, constructed of mostly rectangular planes, thin irregular lines and hard-edged flat shapes. In Telegraph, transparent and opaque layers of aqua and grey suggest depth, anchored by strips of red, brown, white and black spread out at measured intervals across the surface. These are joined and dissected by the incised lines that, in turn, are punctuated by painted dots. The space vibrates with the play of forms in space like the crackle of a telegraph message through the air. Blueprint to an Open Sky – blue, grey, black and white -- is more architectural, with angular shapes and schematic linear elements framing, in a disjointed fashion, a rhomboid of aqua reminiscent of a view from a window.
Retro Rhapsody is bold and expansive in off-key green, puce, mauve, olive, ochre, steel blue, four shades of tan, and eight greys. It has the widest variety of curvilinear and geometric planes, quirky linear details, a plethora of vector dots and scored lines that are curved, as well as straight, going in all directions. The artist says that the painting “alludes to the aesthetic of Art Nouveau,” but it also attests to the exuberance of its invention and execution.
James Kennedy’s paintings are suggestive not definitive. They are not intended to convey particular information, nor look like anything but themselves. Created by imagination and technical artistry, these spaces for the mind exist as independent presences for visual contemplation.
There are many kinds of abstraction, removed at different degrees of separation from external reality. Looking at James Kennedy’s work, I am reminded of a statement by Wassily Kandinsky “Of all the arts, abstract painting is the most difficult. It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have a heightened sensitivity for composition and for colours, and that you be a true poet. This last is essential."