In Marcus Kenney’s Dreams River, his seventh solo exhibition at Marcia Wood Gallery in Atlanta, the Savannah-based artist augments his now-customary palette of found objects with neon lights, blending shocks of luminescent color with metal chains, fishing nets, weathered wood, and other materials drawn from the landscape of his coastal home, contemplating time and memory in sixteen new assemblage sculptures. But rather than explore new ground, Kenney retraces familiar formal techniques and occasionally fails to fully transform the materials in his assemblages into something more, coming up just short of a major breakthrough moment.
Kenney’s approach to the sculptures in Dreams River is entirely materials-focused. While the components of some works gel together—like the neon arc, circle mirror, netting, and wood of the impeccably composed dreams river—others never quite manage to coalesce. The artist’s preferred materials are the sorts of things you might scavenge from the deck of a capsized schooner, pull from a pile in a rural junkyard at dusk, or grab from the cobwebbed corner of an ancestral barn. Objects such as fringe bunting, buoys, knives, and rusted tools are draped in metal chains, rope, and yarn and embellished with neon loops and lines.
An exhibition statement provided by the gallery compares the individual works in the show to poems, claiming that Kenney wanted to explore the ebb and flow of memory and shared history through an array of sculptures united by similar formal elements. Although assemblages such as my apocalypse, not far from here is a long way down, and turning tables are rich in texture and alluring in their thoughtful intricacy, a number of works—particularly workin man blues and I found my smile again/et tu brute?—are inadequately transfigured from their workshop roots. When Kenney succeeds, however, his materials transform into evocative memory capsules. Pleasant, cozy color spills from the effulgent neon, making the walls around many of the sculptures blush with a warmth that may as well be a prescription for nostalgia.
If memory is a seamstress running its needle through time to weave a tapestry, Kenney’s bottlecap chains and cords of frayed rope are the threads which, when tugged, agitate a thousand disconnected reminiscences. It’s clear that Kenney wants us to feel something, wants the tin toys and metal locks and vintage arrows to awaken something in viewers—but it’s a gamble that doesn’t always pay off.
Some works are precariously busy and others—such as dream of a dream, the hanging sculpture greeting visitors when they cross the gallery threshold—are compositionally unsound. In dream of a dream, a chunk of wood suspended from a metal chain is run through with short blades of neon. A purple neon hoop dangles from the wood, accompanied by a smaller black hoop and draped lengths of rope. Although dream of a dream contains fewer component materials than the similarly-sized a haters heart —a playful sculpture which is anchored by a stop sign and topped off by a melted black boombox—it appears less carefully edited. While a haters heart demands attention in a corner of the main exhibition area despite its immediate proximity to three other works, dream of a dream fails to command the prime entryway real estate it has been given.
workin man blues is perhaps the worst offender in the handful of assemblages which fail to transform in their journey from the workshop to the gallery wall. Tin cans containing scissors, a broken saw, a mallet, and other items from the tool bench sit atop the sculpture frame. Below, a rainbow of neon tube lights are stuffed into a tool organizer. It is the most literal offering in an exhibition which would undoubtedly have benefitted from its removal.
Although Dreams River doesn’t quite stick the landing with regard to the poetic emotional connection Kenney strives for, some assemblages are undoubtedly absorbing and seductive. The exhibition is at its best when Kenney utilizes neon lights, both scrawling and linear, to create depth, dimension, sumptuous shadows, and gauzy reflections. The play between vibrant blue, fuchsia, and red neon lights in wade thru darkness creates one of the show’s best and most arresting moments: delicate waves thrown across the gallery wall by a fishing net’s shadow.
Marcus Kenney’s solo exhibition Dreams River is on view at Marcia Wood Gallery in Atlanta through December 14.