by Jonathan Griffin
Over the past few years, Brian Kennon has emerged as one of the most active and generous participants in the Los Angeles art scene. Aside from his practice as an artist, which regularly involves collaboration or appropriation of other artists’ work (many of them his friends or mentors), he single-handedly runs 2nd Cannons Publications, an independent publishing house that produces a wide range of artists’ books and editions. In 2008, 2nd Cannons opened a project space, a glass-fronted vitrine in Los Angeles’ Chinatown; the current exhibition, by The Institute of Social Hypocrisy, will be its last. Kennon’s work as an artist has taken the form of prints and publications, and his latest exhibition, ‘Documents Remain’, will be at BQ, Berlin, until 25th February 2011.
Jonathan Griffin: Throughout the history of what we call Appropriation Art there is a broad shift from what we might see as a strategy of aggressive appropriation, where a source is seized and subverted, towards a more collegial form of appropriation whereby images are shared and fluid communities of transfer are established. It’s often noted that Richard Hawkins gave you the digital files for his ‘Disembodied Zombie’ series (1997); is it true to say that by and large when you use another artist’s work it’s because it is personally significant to you? How often does it tip into fandom? Or do you see what you’re doing as establishing a community?
Brian Kennon: Fandom certainly plays a part. I think there is some overlap between my reproduction of images and how people use bands, films, books and artists as markers of their own identity and as ways to find others with similar interests – as with hyperlinking in blogs or social networks. The digital era has really changed the nature of images. Now images are no longer dependent on anything for material support. They float within the digital sphere, which is increasingly inseparable from our physical sphere, and through that they are as communicable as words. I look at the word ‘publication’ through its active definition: to make public. When something is made public there is a sharing, and to various degrees, a relinquishment of ownership. Once an idea is brought into public consciousness, it becomes social. The author’s name might be intact, but even that is just a factor within the communicated idea. While I generally only work with artworks and images that I’m fond of, I’m more concerned with trying to open up how artworks can be received, extending their meaning through simple rearrangement.
JG: There is also something refreshing – even thrilling – about handling these traditionally heavy materials in an abbreviated, intimate and casual way.
BK: But I think art is light and casual. The ‘heaviness’ is something that comes after – it is the weight of cultural importance, the weight of monetary value, the weight of the irretrievability of the past. These things are not part of the creation of the artwork. I think of art in terms of gestures – actions done in relation to the current situation. What an artist does is make a move, and that move then creates repercussions as understanding tries to envelop it.
JG: Sherrie Levine said that ‘For me, art is basically about pleasure.’ It seems to me that there are many different kinds of pleasure at play in your work. There is the pleasure of speed, of the nimbleness with which you (and we) make connections or transitions from one object to the next. There is recognition, and the sense of seeing something that we know made strange again, cast in a new light. Then of course there is the pleasure of looking at something that is, for a moment, wholly ours – ‘scopophilia’, the Lacanian term that Laura Mulvey adopted in her essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975). To what extent do you feel that your work delivers these pleasures, and to what extent does it merely comment on them, or form a critique of them?
BK: I agree with Sherrie. For me too, art is basically about pleasure. And I think there is certainly something scopophilic about looking at art. I think this is quite a common, if unspoken thing. While it is true that there is pleasure in looking and thinking about art, that is difficult to talk about in any enlightening way. But with so many of the artists I admire, that have a real impact on how I think about art – Marcel Broodthaers, Richard Hawkins, Trisha Donnelly, John Baldessari, and Levine too – pleasure, as well as play, is quite evident in their work. We’re in a moment in which we’ve adopted a model of the artist as cultural critic, however. This always reminds me of one of the first meetings I had in grad school, with Richard Hawkins. I was working on my first book, Black and White Reproductions of the Abstract Expressionists (2002). I was talking about the project as I thought I was supposed to – as a critique of the relationship between the reproduction and the original; as a critique of the condensing aspects of art history. Hawkins’ response was to say if I wanted to critique something I should examine why I find it pleasurable to critique. I remember getting mad at him, and refusing to meet with him again for couple of semesters – it took me that long to realize he was right. Critique is a crucial aspect of art. It’s integral to the work of all the artists I just mentioned. But I think the place for critique within an artwork is deep in its core, not on its surface.
JG: What is pornography, for you? In recent work you’ve used images of nude women spreading their legs. Can looking ever become excessive, gratuitous, even violent?
BK: Isn’t pornography that thing that can’t be defined, but ‘you know it when you see it?’ OK, maybe that’s too much of an American joke. There’s only a couple of times I’ve used images of women spreading their legs, and it was meant to be a play on the similarities between spread legs and the book spread. The images I used were from the early ’70s and are much cleaner than your question implies. I don’t think of the images I use as pornography. I’m more interested in the innocent pleasure of sexuality. That’s what I like about early ’70s’ Penthouse. It’s coming out of the sexual revolution, a moment when taboos were lifted off sexuality. At that time it was hip to take a date to the adult movie theatre. The photography in Penthouse captures that moment very well. Playboy was focused on the idea of the girl next door, photographing women to look more innocent, as if you were getting a peek into their secret, hidden sexuality. Penthouse presented a more forthright sexuality. The women were not innocent – they were women, not girls – it was sex that was innocent. That starts to change in the late ’70s with the advent of Hustler, when the spirit of the sexual revolution fades away.
JG: Is that just one example of a series of absences in your work? It seems to me there’s the absence of what is represented, whether that is a person, an artwork, or whatever. But what is also absent is the sensuality that seems to drive many of the appetites in your work, whether that is the texture and weight of the paper in a book, the warmth and softness of human skin, or the light and atmosphere of a particular place. The degradation of some of the reproductions serves to distance them from us. Do you recognize this elegiac, melancholy tone in what you do?
BK: No, I don’t see my work in that way. Let’s go back to Levine. In 1981–2 she collaborated with Louise Lawler on projects collectively titled ‘A Picture is No Substitute for Anything’. It’s a sentiment I agree with. But this also brings up Lawrence Weiner’s insistence that his text works are sculpture, which I also agree with. In Weiner’s work, the cultural concept that language points to is an object, a primary structure, an object that exists within the shared cultural fabric. For instance in Weiner’s text work A Cup of Sea Water Poured Upon the Floor (1969) the object is present when you imagine it. It’s important to note that a cup of sea water poured on the floor, as it is conceived, is a single object. Only in the physical world is it a combination of things. Artworks, particularly historical ones, are also a part of the shared cultural fabric. So when I reproduce an image of an artwork, that artwork, as it exists within culture – as something communicable – is present. When you go to a museum you are not just looking at the thing in front of you; you are also looking at all of its associations and references and histories. In other words, in a reproduction of an artwork, all of that is present too. The only thing that missing is the object. Let’s not forget, the things I make are works of art themselves.
JG: Your current exhibition at BQ in Berlin is credited both to Brian Kennon and 2nd Cannons. Your work as a publisher and your practice as an artist who often collaborates and makes books yourself (frequently published by 2nd Cannons) sometimes seem to blur into each other. Do you make a firm distinction between the two?
BK: The BQ show includes all the books released by 2nd Cannons, alongside a series of prints by myself. For me, the roles of artist and publisher are at times quite fluid. 2nd Cannons allows me to explore my ideas through whom I invite and the nature of the proposal I extend. On that level it is a direct extension of my work. At times, those ideas can also feed back into my non-2nd Cannons work. But there is also a side of 2nd Cannons that is dedicated to artists’ books and getting more artists to participate in the form. In those projects, my presence is more restricted.
JG: The opening page of the book that you made with Darren Bader and Chris Lipomi, titled She Has a Hot Ass (2009), has the following statement, under the heading ‘Appropriation Art’: ‘There is obviously no such thing as appropriation art’.
BK: All the text in that book is by Darren Bader. I’m not sure if Darren wrote that or lifted it from another source. When I read that line I wonder where the emphasis of the sentence is: whether it falls on ‘appropriation’ or on ‘art’. There’s no such thing as art without appropriation. Authorship, and how we define it, is a funny thing. What constitutes authorship, and therefore ownership, often seems arbitrary to me. So much of what we do is received, part of a long tradition, a lineage of cultural exchange. Instead of asking if something is original or not, a better question to ask is to what degree something is original. In most cases, you’ll find very little. Let’s say five per cent. Then every once in a while someone will come in and really change what is possible. What we would call a genius. Bob Dylan would be an obvious example; Captain Beefheart is another. These are people who break open the field to new ideas. But how much of Beefheart isn’t blues … which itself is just a rearrangement of existing material? Maybe all he or Dylan ever gave us was a new way to arrange it.
First published: Mousse, No. 27, January 2011