Courtney Kenny’s favorite piece, currently, is a self-portrait in charcoal. Tousled pale hair is set off by a careless smirk. And a huge, red, acrylic “F” circled over her face and checkmarked for emphasis. The unforgiving letter is the epitome of every student’s nightmares.
“When I was doing Failure,” Kenny says, “I was stressed and frustrated. I’d just got declined from some gallery, so I was stressed about that and kind of feeling like a failure.”
Her friends couldn’t understand it. “They’d say, ‘Why do you feel like a failure?’” Kenny recalls. After all, she of all her peers from Bethany College (she graduated last December) had been in juried shows as a sophomore and had her first solo exhibition as a freshman. She’s what you might call driven.
The reaction she gets when applying to galleries and shows is usually along the lines of “You’re how old? What, 23?”
“It leads me to believe more artists wait till they’re older to show,” Kenny says, adding that most students aren’t even thinking about shows in college, just making art. “I was doing things my peers weren’t,” she says. Determined to get her work seen, she felt her way along with “lots of research, lots of trial and error, lots of rejection, lots of failure.” And even if she doesn’t sell as many pieces as she wants at the shows she does get into, she knows each show is an addition to her résumé. “It’s always better to be able to say, ‘Hey, I currently have a show here,’” Kenny points out. “That alone, other galleries perk up a little bit.”
All the while, she’s amassed a body of work in what she calls “unrealistic realism.” The style is realistic, with people and animals portrayed in fine detail with graphite, charcoal, acrylic, or oil, but the subject matter is unrealistic. Elements are drawn in such a way as to make viewers look twice. Is that…real? Could it be real?
Consider, for example, the Nude Bitch. At first glance, the charcoal and acrylic piece is a study of a tired beagle sacked out on a couch. But upon closer inspection, a viewer might notice the rose petals. And are those draped sheets? “That one’s making fun of the nude model,” Kenny says. “No one gets it at first.”
She’s always looking for the quirk, the sense of humor, the hint of tongue-in-cheek. Artists such as Banksy, Chuck Close, and Francoise Nielly encourage her to embrace a subtle wit in her own work. And, perhaps, a tendency to poke fun at art itself. “I’ve always respected artists more who, if they do a piece that’s just three stripes on a canvas, and then I see another piece of theirs that does show they have the technical skills, I can accept the first piece,” Kenny says. “Then you know it’s intentional, not a cover-up for the fact that they can’t draw.”
For Kenny, drawing is where it all began, and she’s taken certain elements from drawing into her painting. For example, nearly all of her work is in black and white. Drawing in black and white is typical, but a black-and-white oil painting raises eyebrows. “It’s more honed in,” she says. “Minimalist. That’s also why most of my pieces don’t have a ton in the background.” A good example of this stark minimalism would be Unravel, a mixed media work with yarn and acrylic.
Kenny does reserve splashes of color to draw focus, such as the In Bloom series. “Too much color,” she says, “and you’re almost noticing the color over the medium.” But she lets her viewers be the judges, saying she wants to provide a direction but not specific answers as to what her art has to say.
Kenny recently wrapped up a month-long show at the Crossroads Art District in Kansas City in March. Her next show will be at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska City in July. For more information, visit courtneykennyart.com.