Fight or Flight? Kelly McKernan sends mixed signals

Kelly McKernan, Manipulate, 2010, gold leaf, watercolor, gouache, and Van Dyke print on paper. Photo courtesy the artist and Beep Beep Gallery.

Kelly McKernan‘s latest series of hybrid photo/paintings contain white butterflies, white patterns that could either be snowflakes or doily placemats, single white feathers frozen in midair, white birds that might be doves, and flowers that might be magnolias, but aren’t. I don’t bring up the color white to criticize the artist’s palette; McKernan’s hues are among the sharpest weapons in her arsenal. But I do mean to highlight the symbolism in Fight or Flight at Beep Beep Gallery (recently extended through this Sunday, May 9), an exhibition meant to engage our basic human urge to run away from life’s challenges or, bravely, to meet them head on. The show’s overly simplistic imagery suggests neither fight nor flight, but rather an artist who’s stuck in between and still doesn’t know what it is she wants to say.

Still, McKernan’s paintings are surprisingly vibrant in person. Her watercolors wax the fullness of summer orange or olive green, yet always recede under noticeable restraint. Compositions like Foreshadowing know how to keep their cool, never stepping outside the schema of rainwater gray and Van Dyke brown—the color predetermined for every work in Fight or Flight due to McKernan’s choice of photographic process. Touches of gold leaf vaguely recall the saintly glow of Byzantine icons; bodily themes, though halfheartedly developed, carry inklings of Frida Kahlo; and meticulous curvilinear lines show an obvious reverence for Aubrey Beardsley and all things Art Nouveau.

Kelly McKernan, Foreshadowing, 2010, watercolor, gouache, and Van Dyke print on paper. Photo courtesy the artist and Beep Beep Gallery.

The series depicts nine women in various stages of indecision: standing, sitting, crouching in fetal position, walking, and tiptoeing away from authority, or in pursuit of a scurrying band of sweet little mice. (Each figure is a photograph of a former classmate incorporated into the painted scene.) The models are wistful, shyly turning their faces away. There’s something about girls today and long bangs—we can’t see their eyes. With the exception of only two, McKernan hides their vision behind shadows and dangling swooshes of hair. Maybe the mice can see for you?

And all this from an artist who’s becoming something of a micro celebrity in the Atlanta scene. A 2009 graduate of Kennesaw State University, McKernan has already exhibited as far as Los Angeles and Baltimore. She’s a prolific worker and knows a thing or two about design and tasteful promotion. This online gallery, for example, documents her artist statement and nearly every work in the show. As her name continues to populate across cyberspace, friends and strangers cheer and give her love virtually every day.

But gratuitous design elements are still gratuitous, and empty symbolism is still empty. The artist was tremendously candid to admit over the phone that she didn’t have many reasons for the motifs she chose, and I thanked her. Creative breakthroughs require a commitment to something—anything. That’s what will make us really cheer.

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  • Jeremy Abernathy
    May 24, 2010 at

    An interesting reaction by local writer Ciara Sames. She relates the question of meaning and artist intent to her own biography, and then applies her ideas to specific examples from art history:

  • anon
    May 11, 2010 at

    Direct from the artist’s statement, the last paragraph:

    “McKernan aims to use her work to investigate the ways in which her own reactions to reality choose to manifest themselves, in effect making each piece a subtle self-portrait. The initial photograph is created to respond to a situation by either fighting or flying, but this response is not known until the work is completed. By immersing herself as a protagonist and creating a world around herself with a stream-of-consciousness approach, she is then able to reinterpret this imagery in terms of how she herself would respond in real life situations.”

    It appears that Mr. Abernathy never bothered to read Ms. Mckernan’s statement.

  • Ashley Anderson
    May 11, 2010 at

    Not to totally diss the uber-conceptual artists/fans out there. It’s just my personal desire to be engaged visually before I begin to look for meaning in something. But I am dissing them a little. Just not a lot. A little. Not much.

  • Ashley Anderson
    May 11, 2010 at

    “Idealist” and “Manipulate” were my two faves from the show.

    “Idealist” had some really nice transitions and implied movement that crossed over from the strictly formal or decorative into the poetic and/or meaningful. Good pairings(as I understood it) of symbols in the picture that, interpreted through the lens of the title, made for a really tidy open-ended rumination. It did everything it needed to, and lo and behold did so while remaining quite lovely.

    “Manipulate” caught me by surprise for the sheer amount of detail. It seemed a departure somehow from previous of Kelly’s work I’ve seen. I mean that in both a good way and certainly to no disrespect of her earlier work. It just has a different quality due to the sheer amount of line as opposed to the more painterly effects I commonly associate with Kelly’s work. Though for me it did not convey a specific idea as clearly as “Idealist”, I was still very excited to see Kelly really digging in and showing off her skills as an exquisite draughtslady.

    Keep slogging on through, I say. I’ll take fine technical skill and good form with a little want for concept over plenty of concept and nothing interesting to look at.

  • Kombo
    May 10, 2010 at

    Kelly’s the shit! Kelly’s work is visually appealling and employs visual motifs that suggest a vague narrative. However, there may in fact be no ‘narrative’, ‘direction’ or ‘reason’ for their symbolic association other than how they compliment each other visually. Some, those searching for meaning, may not like that; others might not care, the visual affect being enough for them.

    Highlighting this is more observation than opinion. Though we’ll almost always look for it, art doesn’t necessarily have to have any meaning, purpose or intended direction, and definitely not one that can be decoded by literally reading the symbols represented. But, unlike wholly decorative abstract work, Kelly’s pieces, via their use of explicit motifs (nymphs, birds, etc) encourages such an interpretation, it dangles the carrot or some resolving meaning/story and there just may not be one, other than it looks good.

  • mike
    May 10, 2010 at

    OMG Kelly your art is so perfect and beautiful and has no room for improvement so don’t listen to these internet nay-sayers with their stupid reviews and critical response to your work, they don’t know anything about anything and just found out about the internet and obviously just want to hurt your feelings!

  • Reed Cavanah
    May 9, 2010 at

    BTW, Mike, I think there was a perfect example of a counter-argument by Jerry Cullum above. Once again, this sounds like picking and choosing information so as to put on high what is, ultimately, one person’s opinion.

  • Reed Cavanah
    May 8, 2010 at

    What do you expect? That’s a fan page, not the review itself.

    There’s no such thing as a defense from reasonable criticism… That criticism comes through as clear as anything, as do the opinions of others. They create a sum total of ideas and aren’t intended to cancel each other out. So what’s the difference between “defending” the reviewer and “defending” the reviewee? It’s fair to review a piece, and it’s fair to review a review. Welcome to the internet.

    And hey, if any of this is about my comments over there… I’m her fiance. I support her. That’s what I do. This ain’t MoMA, this is a local art review. You’re gonna get boyfriends and girlfriends and moms and dads commenting. Until your criticism career reaches greater heights, get used to it.

    Also, notice that the so-called admission over the phone is not a quote. It’s somewhat out of context and fails to properly represent the motivation of the artist. Trust me. ;)

  • Mike
    May 8, 2010 at

    No they aren’t Jeremy. Those comments are awful.

  • Jeremy Abernathy
    May 8, 2010 at

    And the discussion continues on Kelly’s Facebook fan page:

    These comments are greeeat. ;-)

  • mike
    May 7, 2010 at

    Wow, Jeremy seems to have offended the very fans he mentioned towards the end of the review. I do think that the last paragraph comes off as a bit startling, considering that up until that point the review was more descriptive/contemplative while placing the show in a mostly positive light. But I think the comments haven’t put forth any sort of counter argument: “Opinionated blathering” “Agenda parade” and the ever popular “make your own meaning.” These responses sound very defensive and as if Jeremy tore this show to shreds. Thanks to scipius and Jerry for a little bit of reason.

    As far as the “gratuitous design elements” go, I think that if they work compositionally and within the realm of the show they cease to be gratuitous. However, there are things like the white outlines (works in some pieces, not in others) and artificial drips that seem a result of trend more than anything else.

    Overall, I liked the show and I like this review. I think Kelly should be happy not only to have someone put the thought and effort into critiquing her exhibition, but also to have people blindly defending it from reasonable criticism.

  • Jerry Cullum
    Jerry Cullum
    May 7, 2010 at

    I’ve indicated my admiration for McKernan’s work before, and I believe that the unconscious does produce wonders that the conscious mind doesn’t yet perceive. The question is, does it resonate with others on the same unconscious level? There is something to be said for visual fairy tales that don’t quite make sense, or that defeat our every effort to create a narrative for them; that in itself is a strategy of meaning, a meaning about our inability to impose a story on the images the unconscious creates for us. As Wittgenstein said of Georg Trakl, “I don’t understand these poems, but I understand their tone and that makes all the difference for me.” (Don’t trust that quote, I reconstructed it from memory. The part about the tone being the important thing is right.

  • scipius
    May 6, 2010 at

    I like Kelly’s work a lot, but this guy has some points and I don’t think there’s any need to attack him. I think in the modern technology age when we can be more personally connected to the artists or celebrities we like, criticism takes on a much more personal tone than it did before. It’s going to be an awkward time for all of us as old-school criticism meets new wave friend-fans.

  • Adena
    May 6, 2010 at

    What I like about things not forcing meaning on you immediately, is that you can make your own meaning. they become personal and you can make up your own story for the art. It’s not narrow minded and only of the artist’s mind and opinion. I like things that are just what they are. Make your own meaning, but don’t try to say it HAS to have meaning at all. Or, that there is only ONE meaning. It’s art, it’s beautiful, enjoy it.

  • Dangomushi
    May 6, 2010 at

    If I were Ms. McKernan, I wouldn’t put much stock in the opinionated blathering of this reviewer.

    People and artists who try to look for or force meaning into every bit of art are rather dull, in my opinion. There’s something to be said for absurd or whimsical juxtapositions of imagery that doesn’t march in line with the “agenda parade” of forced meaning.

    It’s funny that people in the world of fine art would think that you need to force through unified messages like that in order for it to have merit. Are people like Mr. Abernathy rallying for the art-world equivalent of daily rag political cartoons?

  • Anonymous
    May 6, 2010 at

    I’m really not a fan of this trend of criticism that is either wholly ideological or wholly technical. This review strikes me as the former.

    Also, there’s something to be said for gut level stream-of-consciousness work that doesn’t look like shit on a design level. I don’t think it’s wrong that there’s “no reason” for the specific symbols… In fact I find that all the more sincere.

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