Kathryn Kenworth at Humboldt State’s First Street Gallery


By Isaac Peterson


Desire, Intrigue and Rocket Science: Sculpture and Installation by Kathryn Kenworth at Humboldt State University’s First Street Gallery transforms the gallery space into a microcosm of human aspiration. Kenworth’s miniature balsa wood constructions evoke a pathos of fragility: they appear eminently destroyable. They are objects not to be brushed up against.


This fragility is coupled with a builder’s elegance and a scaled down grandiosity which simultaneously undercuts American technological arrogance in the postwar era and enables the optimism behind notions of progress, technological or otherwise.


In Big Sitter, vertiginous miniature balsa wood ladders scale the sides of a scaffold-and-platform engineered balsawood tower. Following the ascent of three ladders, the platform at the top of the tower supports a grapefruit that has dried into a hard, shiny, black sphere. Atop the dried grapefruit sits a tiny balsa wood observation chair.


The sculpture at first has the quality of a precision scale architectural model, but by degrees, this idea is supplanted by a whimsical, fairy-tale narrative concerning a race of Lilliputians who are using their primitive but elegant technology to infiltrate the world of gigantic human beings. It is a space race in miniature. Little do these fictional people realize that the culmination of all their towering aspirations, all their technological progress, all their calculations and observations, amounts to nothing more than a few brief glimpses of our banal human world.


This “miniature infiltration” is best exemplified by a sculpture which is subtle enough to be mistaken for part of the gallery wall at first glance. A long ladder stretches from the floor of the gallery to high up on the wall, where a tiny balsa wood scaffold runs the length of the wall and turns a corner. Another ladder ascends to a solitary observation platform with a tiny telescope mounted to the railing.


A pervasive theme of Kenworth’s is that of the chair as a literary metaphor alluding to the elevation of human consciousness.


In one sculpture, a tiny, ornate balsa wood throne placed on top of a pedestal is protected by (or perhaps sealed inside of) a glass dome. This piece could easily be taken as a visual representation of the phrase “The seat of human knowledge.”


Besides Big Sitter, three other related wooden tower pieces reach their highest point with a chair atop a final platform. One of the chairs swivels around beneath a tiny, working light bulb, which would rest approximately near the head of the sitter. This recalls the Renaissance concept of the “Light of Human Reason”. An optimistic idea which has perhaps become lost in the complications of our current thinker sitting in the chair at the top of the tower and contemplating solutions to the problem of the human condition.


The culmination of the show, is a rocket ship titled All Systems Go. Although this piece towers over both the viewer and the other work in the gallery, it’s proportions still make sense as the greatest achievement of a miniature science.


The rocket is made out of lead. This gives it a crude, weighty presence which is offset by the unencumbered simplicity of its toy like design and the elegance of it’s standing upright on the points of three triangular stabilizers.  


A single, red porthole gleams like a ruby set in the metal near the nose cone. It stands like a monolith built to memorialize all the scientific achievements of a fictional culture. The rocket has a distressed beauty, manufactured by an aesthetic technology which ends up subverting its own aims (i.e., no one could expect a lead rocket to make it into space).


It looks like a set model for a 1950’s science fiction movie, but the lead is too real, too present, too dumb and malleable to be a convincing symbol for our unlimited technological potential. Instead, the rocket ends at itself. It is useless and ridiculous, but its towering presence is truly beautiful.


In the end, it is a monument not to the achievements of science and technology, but to childhood wonder. It is a monolithic toy that reminds us we had once wanted to become astronauts when we grew up.