The most stingingly accurate rationale I've heard for Barack Obama's widespread popularity is that he allows white folks to feel that they've paid reparations without actually having to come up off any money. So while media pundits have been busy remembering to say "electable" instead of "light-skinned," Marcus Kenney — a white, Savannah-based collage artist — has been busy ripping into America's race problem without a whiff of punch-pulling code language.
His Marcia Wood Gallery exhibit, Midnight in America, features small-scale sculpture and nearly 30 "paintings" (the artist calls them paintings even though he only incidentally uses paint in his compositions) all made in the last 12 months or so, when the question of race in American electoral politics has become more important than ever.
Kenney builds canvases from paper-based cultural flotsam seemingly without restriction. Canceled checks, vintage greeting cards, postage stamps and more find room in his works. The result is a kind of anti-collage in which scraps are used as daubs of paint for their formal properties of color, line and texture, as much as for their ready-made imagery.
Such a painterly approach means that Kenney is free to build his images from scratch, allowing the raw materials' historical references to peek through only when he chooses. In "Lotto," a white girl lovingly cradles a white doll covered in blackface. While the source papers for the figures aren't particularly identifiable, lottery tickets clearly make up the thrumming background. What an apt metaphor for a miscegenated nation as it drags itself painfully toward a historic election.
Marcus Kenney is a homeboy. His compositional virtuosity does not at all conceal his oh-so-Southern love of weathered materials and sense of historical decay. But where a lesser artist might have drifted into nostalgia, Kenney rises into transhistorical prophecy. The cutesy children in his work don't refer to a mythic innocent age, but instead unpack the terror of the current moment as they cut each other's heads off or wear the face mask of a terrorist bandit. Old greeting cards and handwriting samples are treated as neither precious nor lovely, but as the background of a terrifying universe, troubled and troubling at the close of an American dream.
Marcus Kenney: Midnight in America. Through May 24. Free. Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-6 p.m. 263 Walker St. 404-827-0030. www.marciawoodgallery.com.
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