Having grown up in the town it is fitting that the now Switzerland-based artist Clare Kenny has her first institutional solo exhibition, Industrial Romantic, at Touchstones Rochdale. As the title of the exhibition suggests there is collisional discourse between fantasy and fiction, dreams and monotony; stirring together a cold Northern upbringing with romance, sickly sweetness and a strong feminine oeuvre.
The first steps into the gallery space are dominated by big, bold mixed media works with thick gluttonous powder pink paint and lengths of buzzing neon. However, the subtler pieces that Kenny calls ‘Puddles’ (2014 – 17) are far more alluring. A series of works, they are pieces of glass with printed representations of oil slicks left by the cars that came in and out of the artist’s life as herself and her family grew older, acknowledged with simple but evocative titles such as ‘Vauxhall Astra’ and ‘Toyota Corolla’ (both 2014). They are a clear indication of Kenny’s inherent interest in chemical colours and changing fluid forms as well as exploring and emphasising the beauty and energy in the everyday. The placement of the puddles allows the strips of neon lights from the wall-based works to be captured and reflected on the surface of the glass, ironically conjuring the imagery of a cold rainy night in Rochdale where the reflections of glowing electric signs from chip shops and kebab houses shiver down onto litter strewn puddles.
Walking through the space the viewer is confronted with a vast array of work on both floor and wall; plaster, polyester fabric, glass, jesmonite, steel and paint are just some of the materials used within the pieces that are spaced in a refined installation throughout the gallery. Seemingly the only uniting element encouraging any narrative between the works is ‘Pastel dream on a mid summer morn’ (2017); a satirical site specific work that adorns and decorates each of the gallery walls in painterly shapes and Kenny’s soft powdery palette. The work is a direct response to the gallery space and reanimates memories of her father as a builder and herself as a professional painter in London. The work allows the gallery to become a place of happening, a personalised location for the artist’s memories and stories to be played out for the viewer, rather like a neighbour’s garish living room wallpaper.
In the middle of the vast gallery floor are interesting archaic structures simply cast in plaster and pigment. On closer inspection it is clear the bold forms of ‘One for the road’ (2013) are cast from everyday items such a buckets, kitchen moulds and Tupperware, familiar items from our own homes. These works are ongoing within Kenny’s practice, the way in which they are cast with swirls and peppers of pigment allude to more expensive historically important materials such as marble. This is depictive of the artist’s interest in elevating the humble and mundane to the status of art, taking snippets and small anecdotal elements from her upbringing and evolving them into simple sculptural stories.
The show describes a desire for better things, to be reinvented somewhere else, to be driving a Cadillac or Mustang, not a Vauxhall Astra. Kenny encourages the viewer to question the truth of reality and speediness of time, conjuring personal memories of different ages within our lives and how they affect who we are in the present. Industrial Romantic in some places relates to the many monotonous aspects of Northern lives, with Kenny quite humbly describing the populace with light-hearted sincerity and sensitivity, paying homage to the sometimes forgotten essences of existence.
Clare Kenny: Industrial Romantic, Touchstones Rochdale, Rochdale, 15 April – 8 July 2017.
Richard Hughes is an artist based in Manchester.