Arnold Kemp: Foiling

It is the genius of materials to ensnare the artist in complex attractions. Stroke, fold, tear, press … material gestures shape the artist over time, seeding and reseeding the psychic conditions of making that precede language, but never form. Form is the shifting apparition of the psyche, and its pull resonates throughout the work of U.S.-born Bahamian artist Arnold Kemp, whose visual art, performance, and writing practices explore the registration and expression of the psyche … meanings traced in flux.

Psychoanalyst André Green describes the basic organization of the mind: “Thought is the manipulation of signs. Thinking does not exist apart from the signs through which it expresses itself. This capacity of thought opens the way for an infinite system of interpretation.” The signs our mind manipulates may or not be conscious, and they precede the constraints of language; they are emotional, affective, gastrointestinal . . . limitless. As signs “bind,” “unbind,” and “rebind,” symbolization takes flight and a third space opens. This thirdness is the space of interpretation. “The ability to interpret thought is not born magically out of the dual relationship between a sign and an object: the relationship needs an organizing agent that is not part of the relationship, and as it relates to thought, such an agent recognizes a distance and a reflection between the object and the sign.” Distance and reflection; the relation of the organizing agent is oblique and digressive, yet it is the spur that externalizes symbolization into objecthood. Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein’s fundamental question about psychic awareness shadows the artistic process: “What stands between the sometimes unrepresentable content of our deepest inner reality and the representation of realities through perception?” Kemp envisions the aniconism of this interiority as a haunting.

As enigmatic as the psyche is, unbraiding its nuances is important for approaching Kemp’s work, in part, because an essential aspect of his practice involves meditatively engaging the materials he transforms. Meditation activates Kemp’s nonlinguistic, intuitive relationship to his materials as he traces them through contemporary and historical forms of black experience, particularly as it is represented in art, literature, and cinema. Here Kemp tracks his perceptions in relation to the unrepresentability that Klein sites between deep feeling and mediated experience.

Nearly all of the materials Kemp employs reflect light but do mirror likeness, becoming metaphors for internalization, repression, and the obfuscation of the black male body—the “distance and reflection” described by Green. These qualities of perception act as organizing agents in Kemp’s work, traveling through his material taxonomy, which includes: aluminum foil; polished black shoe leather; silver, spray-painted latex; glitter; stainless steel; glazed clay; high-gloss photographic paper; and black oil paint. These materials transform visual reception into metonymic glimpses and fractured, abstracted fields—forms of illegibility that haunt the failures of representation Kemp embraces. Kemp also stimulates and broadens his material vocabulary with the addition of familiar, personal, and domestic objects that he incorporates within larger installations, including: sea shells; leather belts; brass belt buckles; and polished, black leather shoes (all but the seashells and brass belt buckles are meticulously crafted by the artist). These objects speak to the psyche’s most pressing concerns: safety, sustenance, wonder, affection, etc. … needs imperiled in a world plagued by injustice and destruction, yet full of beauty, love, and nurture.

The natural, crafted, and homespun objects Kemp incorporates into his work also reflect light but deflect mirroring. They become part of tableaux that are charming, emotionally delicate, and, at times, painful to absorb. A poignant example: two dully shimmering dyads—a pair of Kemp’s black handmade leather shoes, resting next to a pair of delicately spotted, tropical shells (think of Kemp’s Bahamian origins). To move beyond the beauty and elegance of the shoes and shells (notice the poetic alliteration) to their deeper symbolism demands time and empathy. “In symbolization, two parts of a broken unity are reunited; and the overall result can be considered not only as the rebuilding of a lost unity, but also as the creation of a third element that is distinct from the other two split-off parts. This way of understanding symbolization links it with conception. Here, to conceive both constitutes a concept and creates an imaginary gap between the two states of separation and reunification.” Are these the uninhabited shelters of two vulnerable species? The multiple readings of Kemp’s tableaux, and his work in general, speak to broken unities and processes of reparation, such as: artistic identity, self, and the privacy of creation; the relation of nature and culture in the Anthropocene; shelter and homelessness; interspecies relationships, both symbiotic and ruinous; making and finding; craft and art; humor and horror; the hierarchical artistry of species; and loss, lingering, and abandon.

Over the last decade, no material has been as powerfully symbolic for Kemp as aluminum foil. This domestic, yet industrial substance—reflective, yet burnished, crinkly, and endlessly impressionable—has become the artist’s truest metaphor for the psyche. Many of the objects that Kemp has created with foil have taken the form of “masks”—expanses of fractalized sheet foil with strangely shaped holes that resemble eyes and mouths. Their depths appear to collapse time and space, imbuing the works with an indescribable sense of traumatic duration. In the masks, Kemp also uses foil as a foil, to deflect menace, to fool and outsmart violence and predatory behavior, and to protect what is most critical, vulnerable, and precious: art, queer love, blackness, rage, justice … At times Kemp reproduces the foils as color photographs. In this form, they fill their frames such that the only edges we see become dark orifices, signaling that we are in the presence of an object with an unspecified relation to a body, or disembodied spirit. Kemp has produced these images in varying sizes; some as tall as dressing mirrors. At this size, the foil’s patterns become a field of refraction ruptured by the dark, worrying pools.

Domestically, foil is a humble material, but its history embodies the collision of early twentieth-century militarism and industry. Like the tin can, it was invented to create anaerobic environments for food preservation, and to line the moisture-prone parts of machines. Foil is the result of precise and sustained pressure intense enough to flatten massive aluminum “bricks” into enormous rolls of sheeting as thin as .0065 mm. The sheets are so thin that they must be paired for their final burnishing. This results in foil’s infamous double-sidedness: the exterior remains shiny and heat-reflective, while the rubbed interior gains a matte finish that absorbs heat. Foil brought the Space Age into the American home, and the downhome patriotism of the early Apollo missions. Because foil blocks radio waves, it became a symbol of Cold-War paranoia, and insanity in general. Contemporary movies still portray people wearing foil helmets and battling private hallucinations. But for all of its uses, and in direct relation to Kemp’s work, foil’s most astonishing property is its magical vulnerability as a surface, like a spirit medium capable of detecting otherworldly thoughts and beings. From this perspective, Kemp’s foils register the psyche like an automatic drawing.

Spiritual masking traditions are essential to black Bahamian ritual, brought to the Caribbean by African slaves and used as powerful magic against the evil and oppression of colonization. Junkanoo became, and remains, the most visible public manifestation of this power. Participants create an infinite variety of costumes and masks that act as shields of anonymity and collectivity. The masks, in particular, remain the ancient conduits of protective spirits. It is a mistake to disconnect Kemp’s work from this history, this third space that is created by the body of the festival and the spirits that inhabit its objects. The patterns and repeating forms of African textiles also figure prominently in bodies of Kemp’s work, and the artist has used these textiles to create wearable forms such as pointed hoods. In a series of photographic self-portraits we witness Kemp possessing their forms: a queer body refusing to be defined by the history of violence waged against it. Kemp uses the psychic depths of material association to embrace and confront stereotypes, register trauma, deflect the overprivileged narcissism of mirroring, fashion new forms of beauty, and break, reunite, and transcend the symbolization of objects and signs. But in spite of their oneiric power, Kemp’s works are not reveries; they are hauntings. To experience reverie is to be lost in thought; but to be haunted is to be tormented by the inability to forget.

During his residency at KsMOCA, Kemp offered a similar level of introspective depth to the students. Using the domestic foil that is the foundation of his own work, Kemp created activities that gave each student the opportunity to reflect on their own representation. In preparation, Kemp presented an artist talk, sharing his work’s important artistic and cultural influences and addressing the students’ astute, well-prepared questions. One of Kemp’s goals was to offer the students a consideration of “high” art’s marginalizing hierarchies and discuss how art history has excluded artists of color whose work was created with everyday materials. Together, they considered the ways in which materials become symbols of value. Kemp also touched on European art’s appropriation of indigenous art and culture. Kemp showed the students work that he has cherished for years—including many masks—from the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas galleries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Alongside Junkanoo, it was an ideal way for Kemp to introduce ancestor spirits, indigenous deities, and the inhabiting of masks across generations: the artwork as a site of protection, knowledge, and power.

As they began making, the students explored Kemp’s practice of meditative observation, spending time regarding themselves in reflective surfaces, mostly mirrors. Kemp wanted to begin with less abstract self-reflection to give the students the opportunity to see their own images clearly, with the most detail. This was also a way to avoid the blur, fuzz, and exaggerated appearances of the digital realm. During these periods, students were encouraged to study the expressions accompanying their thoughts and feelings, and to create unique and mysterious expressions in order to investigate their meaning. In essence, Kemp was encouraging the students to sense and describe the distance and reflection between signs and objects, and to notice their interpretation.

Alongside Kemp, students explored the physical properties of foil, testing its material and visual properties and inventing ways to manipulate it as a surface. The students used their experience to create foil masks that were then scanned and printed, in color, on white paper. The masks were informed by their meditations, and invested with whatever level of self-portraiture they chose to reveal. In fellowship with his class, Kemp also created a new body of work for exhibition at the school. Kemp’s masks are accompanied by small colored “tags” placed in the margins of each image. The little color blocks have the appearance of semaphores or insignia; they suggest a group of united countries or a team of some kind. Throughout everyone’s work, the scanning of the foil imbued the printed images with a hyperreal, magical quality, like electric fields. Many of the students continued developing their representations with pencil, marker, and paint, furthering their imaginative power. As the images in this catalog attest, the students interpreted and expanded their works with extraordinary inventiveness and expression.

Stephanie Snyder, 2020