Estelle Kenney

Zaks Gallery

As Joanna Frueh has aptly pointed out, Chicago Imagism is not as wonderfully illogical and cleverly fey as it appears; it is actually born of “a chaotically self-destructive society—more specifically of Chicago’s checkered past and present.” This conditioning of the fanciful by an omnipresent restraining reality is essential to Estelle Kenney’s work.

This current work, for the first time, combines poetry and documentary note-taking with imagery, stripping the paintings of a claustrophobic color in favor of linear definition and conceptual focus. Words appear either directly on the aluminum, imaged panels or else separately framed, but near the related painting. The writing style, even the poetry, is spare, journalistic, and epigrammatic, records of what she has seen, felt or imagined, with a lingering implicit question, “Why should this be?” or “How am I to regard this?”

In contrast to her words, Kenney’s imagery is characteristically “hot,” floating, angular, bloated, swinging creatures made of twisted hair, deformed by lack of bone structure, emitting gas, trapped into or partly constructed of roped and punctured machines rigged for theatrical display and rugged motion. Fantasy or fact? She has called her population “an entirely mobilized creaturedom, intent upon keeping their aurifisses unclogged.” And the frenzied activity in flat, indefineable space further suggests that these images symbolize pressures and tensions which could be everywhere and in anything.

So the relationship of Kenney’s images to her writing is unexpected. Words neither explain nor exactly match the image. Rather, in these partnerships, the paintings communicate an overall “how this feels” while the writing conveys what occurred. For example, one tripartite poem describes how one of Kenney’s grandmothers sat all day tying leftover twine into balls of usable string; how her other grandmother lived in luxurious surroundings with no thought of such humble conversation, and how Kenney herself has attempted to weave bits and pieces of life into a strong whole. In the juxtaposed painting, glistening images furiously wind in knots, beady eyes are in impossible places, brushmarks on the aluminum surface look like some human attempt to penetrate the cold metal. Is this how the grandmother felt tying string? Is this the meaning of one grandmother in relation to the other? Is this what Kenney experiences in her own thoughts about “resharing extensions?”

Another recurrent theme is “What will the new day bring?”—an ironic question beside Kenney’s vision. Consider her innocent poetic words about “I greet it [the new day] with anticipation / What will I wear? / Who will be there?” Then add the chaotic imagery. The one bounces off the other, the imagery seeming to say, “This is what is in store.” Or, from another, survival-oriented point of view, the total complex may revert to a comic interpretation, a hysterical kind of comedy whose reason is pressure for release. In the end, the cartoonish, non-real aspect of her imagery may be mostly a way to avoid confronting the ugliness of what she really has to say.

C.L. Morrison