Essay

BACKHome.htmlBiography.htmlshapeimage_1_link_0
 

Planes, Trains and Automobiles
by Jess Johnson.

(Originally commissioned by the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art for NEW14) 

Most days Kenny rides the train between Upper Ferntree Gully and Flinders Street Station. The journey takes one hour, seventeen minutes. Kenny times it perfectly to roll out of bed, dress, grab something from the kitchen and arrive at the platform as the train pulls up. At Upper Ferntree Gully the train is mostly empty. Kenny used to take this opportunity to eat breakfast. Sometimes breakfast would be cold baked beans, eaten from the can with a fork. Kenny eventually gave up the beans, as they were slippery and slow to eat. He was often still eating as the carriage filled with people, making him self conscious. Next he tried eating yoghurt from a coffee mug with a spoon. This ended after a junkie stole the mug, eating the yogurt furiously with her hands while seated next to him. (Kenny stared hard out the window and tried to ignore it.) After this, Kenny gave up eating on the train altogether and instead began to draw the passengers around him. The portraits Kenny drew were a way to pass the time and improve his drawing. 

Kenny was an art student at university. At his studio in the city Kenny would work alone on what he called his 'real' art practise. He'd make replicas of things you might find on a shop shelf: chocolate bars, fruit drinks, moulded from clay or carved from wood. Small totemic offerings for the lost souls of advertising. When Kenny wasn't in his studio he kept himself busy. Kenny wrote a blog. Kenny took a photo of his local petrol station every day for a year. Kenny drew a zine about the Bill Henson controversy. Kenny made a video of 182 people blinking at a Blink 182 concert. Kenny's curiosity didn't switch on and off with the studio light, his other activities were like balloons tethered to the small white box of his studio. (In his mind's eye, Kenny keeps a small model of himself as an artist, carving perfect oranges from wood.)

All Kenny's activities tethered back to Kenny himself. Focusing too much on his artwork is ignoring the great, big elephant in the room wearing the Kenny name tag --- like describing someone's clothes while ignoring the person under them. What is it about Kenny and the various things he does? Kenny can think about things all day long and still not make up his mind. When Kenny finds himself in a quandary he follows the problem around like a dog. His pursuit becomes an artwork in itself, although Kenny doesn't think of the activity in this way. He simply likes to work things out for himself; he won't just repeat what everyone else is saying. 

Kenny finds most of his problems outside of his studio whenever he encounters other people. His quandaries are at supermarkets, petrol stations, airport terminals newsagents and on trains: intersections of pause and refuel as we move from A to B. They are in-between spaces, catch-alls, holding pens that all but the most cosseted by wealth must enter. In public space we are funnelled through tunnels, sped through tubes, spilled out into bland corporate hangers swirling with human herds, aggravating for space. This charged push-pull is what happens when strangers are forced into proximity: when bum flesh presses against others on seats, when a passenger insists on breathing too loud. It brings out the misanthrope in all of us. Not Kenny, though. Kenny is a weird fish --- or a smart cookie, or an elephant and a dog. Kenny can be many things.  

Sometimes Kenny filmed himself on the train to map the progress of his drawing. Listening to the background noise in the clips is like spinning through radio frequencies: drunken proclamations, aggressive challenges, racist taunts. Kenny never lets it surge to the foreground. We glimpse it over his shoulder, wearing our own discomfort. Kenny is calm at the centre of the storm, providing safe passage --- a companionable presence in the carriage. Kenny has lucidity with people. He employs a curious technique of disarmament, honed from negotiating simmering tensions and occasional eruptions on the train lines. He offers up a kind of passive reflection rather than resistance, appearing to people as a nicer version of themselves. People don't normally pick fights with mirrors --- except in the movies.

In 2009 Kenny spent a year in bed recovering from spine surgery. It's hard not to think of these experiences without a tinge of mysticism. We assume them to be transformative. We set such people apart us, those who are forced through a long tunnel of incarceration, illness and immobility. When they come back they look the same but are different. We can only imagine what it is like on the other side. Where did your mind go during your year in bed? Be our bridge. Tell us where you've been. I search Kenny's work for clues. Kenny is pretty clear: 'I've been to Belgrave and back. Many, many times.'

 

It's the journey not the destination that's important. 

Oh. I see what you're saying Kenny. Though it is a worn phrase --- made dull through repetition and turned into a sugar doughnut masticated by daytime life coaches. But Kenny has a sneaky footstep. The phrase appears unbidden in my notes as if laid down gently on the surface of a still lake. Kenny bids you to float towards conclusions under your own stream. Perhaps we each need our own particular truth teller, someone we recognise as belonging to ourselves. Maybe it is the messenger not the message that is important. The message is unchanging, universal, time immemorial. I'm deaf to the evangelising pulpit of Oprah, but I'll sit down with Kenny. And that is all Kenny asks for: a moment of your time; to look not once but twice, and see something anew.

Here’s an essay about my work by the extremely talented Jess Johnson. And no, I don’t mean Jessica Johnson, the wife of Australian cricketer fast bowler Mitchell Johnson...

...I mean Jess Johnson, the awesome New Zealand born Australian based artist.

Ha, anyway, here’s the essay.