You won’t find much of Matt Kenyon’s art hanging on a wall.
The 37-year-old Baton Rouge-born artist likes to challenge his viewers.
In one piece created after the housing bust, a machine pumps out tiny clouds shaped like houses that float to the gallery ceiling, creating an ephemeral housing development.
Another project, “Notepad,” appears to be an everyday yellow pad of paper, but its red lines are micro-printed lists of every civilian death during the war in Iraq. In 2010, Kenyon was able to slip copies into government offices.
“I became really interested in work that could live in the world and not just in a gallery on the wall,” Kenyon says. “Some of the work is, I think, pretty subtle, like the notepad. … Some others are obnoxious spectacles.”
An associate professor at the University of Michigan’s Stamps School of Art and Design, Kenyon’s work focuses on the meeting place of technology and American culture.
His work has appeared at galleries all over the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Late last year he was chosen as an International TED Talk fellow for 2015. Next month he will speak at the TED Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, where experts in a variety of fields will share ideas on technology, entertainment and design.
“You could call him a superstar in the arts world,” says Wayne Talbot, the director of fine arts for the East Baton Rouge Parish School System who was one of Kenyon’s early teachers. “He’s leaving his mark on the art world.”
An artist in the making
At Westdale Middle School, Kenyon loved science and art. He said he began developing as an artist in Talbot’s class, where students started class every day by reading a prompt and drawing on 3-inch square pieces of paper.
Kenyon was a “quirky little pre-adolescent kid who came up with creative ideas,” Talbot recalls.
“I struggled in math, and I wasn’t a great student in that sense,” Kenyon says. “Art was kind of my escape. I was sort of surprised that I could make a career out of that.”
In college at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Kenyon focused on painting.
But outside of school, he and collaborator Doug Easterly ventured into performance art and guerilla projects, founding SWAMP, a studio that focused on nontraditional projects.
After a Wal-Mart Supercenter opened in Hammond, they stayed inside for 24 straight hours for a work called “Walmart-athon,” changing into clothes bought there, then eating and resting there.
They documented their day with disposable cameras purchased there. “It wasn’t the most successful work, but the experience was important,” Kenyon says. “It was where I started to see that there are all these layers. Consumer culture is not as simple as we think.”
While he continued to paint, his work was shifting toward more subversive topics.
In Hammond, he also bought picture frames from Wal-Mart and digitally manipulated the placeholder photos to contain his family’s pictures before returning them and placing them back in circulation.
Later, in graduate school at Virginia Commonwealth University, Kenyon created what he called “P.O.P (Point of Purchase) Portraits.” He would take rolls of receipt paper from cash registers and alter them so they would later print portraits of people who had shopped at the store earlier.
“It was this idea kind of like Mother Theresa in a cinnamon bun, a miraculous moment where something really familiar becomes really alien and strange,” he says. “The hope is that when something becomes strange, people can see it with fresh eyes.”
Kenyon’s most celebrated works build on this idea — changing the everyday into the strange.
In “Supermajor,” one container in a rack of vintage motor oil cans has sprung a leak, but through what Kenyon calls a “dumb parlor trick,” the oil appears to flow from the floor back into the can. Created in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the installation challenges the faith many have that our supply of natural resources is endless.
Creating these works takes a lot of “trial and error,” Kenyon says. “I have a warehouse full of half-broken things, trains of thought that didn’t work out.”
In the classroom, Kenyon encourages his students to figure out artistic solutions to the world’s problems. He teaches game design and application development, an area that he sees as “power centers in the up-and-coming economy and society.”
He wants them to find creative ways to attack the world’s big problems.
“I want artists to have a place at the table,” he says. “We have these big, what they call wicked problems, like health care. Those solutions need to come from lots of different places and lots of different disciplines.”
In today’s world, artists can play an enormous role, he says.
“When you’re a kid going to school and you’re interested in art … they always say it’s like a lost cause, but it’s not,” he said. “It’s one of the things our country does really well.”