Kathryn Kenworth: Street Life

By: Stephen Maine

In our private worlds, between our familiar walls, we know what to expect; not so on the street. To be a pedestrian is to immerse oneself in circumstances that are subject to change without warning. Out in public, a complex set of conventions governs our interactions with strangers. An element of theater is involved, and we hope everyone we encounter is reading from the same script. Intentions sometimes synchronize, but often don’t. Currency enables the reciprocity of effort and will, supplying a common language for producers and consumers. What use do we have for each other? Well, what’s in your wallet?

Throughout her formally wide-ranging work, Kathryn Kenworth delights in skewing our consumerist roles. In drawings, sculptures, installations and performances, she expresses optimism that meaningful human contact can penetrate our systems of exchange. This outlook is grounded in humor, and in a gentle appreciation, for example, of the inadvertent formal poetics found in bundled cardboard set out for recycling. For her Boxcutter series (2008), Kenworth reproduced these found sculptures in miniature. John Chamberlain notes that “everybody makes sculpture every day, whether in the way they wad up a newspaper or the way they throw the towel over the rack or the way they wad up the toilet paper.”[i] If Kenworth’s streetwise variations on Chamberlain’s domestic observation are at all ironic, the irony targets the artist herself, who invests considerable effort in replicating the effortless creativity of the original.

Boxcutter - miniature sculpture Comingled containers6.25"L x 3.5"W x 4.25"H

Boxcutter - miniature sculpture
Comingled containers6.25"L x 3.5"W x 4.25"H

The streetscape is a rich source of sculptural form, particularly in her drawings, such as Licensed Operator and Patrol, (2007) of beat up cars bound for the recycling center with loads of scrap cardboard tethered to the roof. Recycled cardboard is a signature material, for example in Lowest Prices in Town (2011). The artist’s skepticism about the privileged status of the art object is announced in the title of this installation, for which Kenworth restocked a vacant drug store’s display window with cardboard versions of typical products.

Installation: Lowest Prices in Town

Installation: Lowest Prices in Town

Exploring the flip side of the urban landscape, Kenworth suggests a sylvan setting in Uproot (2008), which was realized during a stay at the MacDowell Colony. Simulating a leaf-strewn forest, the room-filling installation’s cardboard tree trunks resembled their constituent material’s timberland source. Referring to an act of violence against nature, the title acknowledges the knotty problem posed by a work that embodies a critique of the economy that makes it possible. 

Installation: Uproot

Installation: Uproot

Her interest in alternate distribution systems, shadow economies, has lead Kenworth to a social practice artwork that promotes art’s proliferation off the grid of official currency. Her ongoing non*mart project (est. 2009) provides an interface between artists and the general public, who meet to swap goods and services in a communal pooling of talent that disseminates both works of art and needed skills.

The Trade-o-Mat (2011) subverts the ordinarily anonymous vending machine by requiring human contact for its functionality. A number of desirable art objects by as many artists are housed in a display cabinet made of recycled wood. The customer/collector inserts not coins, bills or plastic but a written proposal for payment by way of barter. The artists later review the proposals and follow through on these messages; the transaction becomes a negotiation, subject to the usual human complications, risks and misunderstandings. 

Trade-O-Mat art vending machine

Trade-O-Mat art vending machine

Laced with humor, well aware of the foibles of urban life, and accounting for the failures and frailties of human nature, the social radicalism of Kathryn Kenworth’s activities implies engagement rather than alienation, a will to utility and mutual advantage as a form of resistance to the status quo.

2011


[1] Quoted in Klaus Kertess, “John Chamberlain: Squeeze Play,” reprinted in Seen, Written: Selected Essays. New York: Gregory R. Miller & Co., 2011