Kurt Kemp

Dark Man


Pressing concern: Artist Kurt Kemp produces his darkly imaginative art on the old-fashioned printing press in his Bodega studio.

Artist Kurt Kemp sounds off about his provocative work

By Patrick Sullivan

ART GALLERIES, like libraries and mortuaries, have a reputation for quiet solemnity. But anyone harboring such easy illusions would have quickly surrendered them at this month’s opening of an exhibit at the California Museum of Art featuring work by Bodega artist Kurt Kemp. Packed with dark absurdity and mordant wit, Kemp’s art has a reputation for provoking strong responses ranging from disgust to hilarity, and the CMA show proved no exception.

One woman in particular, Kemp recalls, simply could not stop giggling as she moved from piece to piece.

“She was just laughing and laughing,” Kemp says, chuckling a bit himself at the memory. “So someone asked me, ‘Geez, do you like that response?’ And the fact is that, yeah, I kinda do. There were some pretty funny things in some of those pictures, and that’s just as effective a way of making someone think as to make them believe that everything we do is somehow full of profundity.”

Not that Kemp–who also teaches at Sonoma State University–doesn’t take his art seriously. A blackness both literal and emotional mingles with the absurdist humor in many of his pieces currently on display in simultaneous exhibitions at the CMA and the SoFo2 Gallery in Santa Rosa. Kemp calls his art “confessional,” and it’s not hard to see why: There is something very old-school Catholic about these dark scenes, full of smoky shading, tortured faces, and the occasional hangman’s noose. Martyred saints shot full of arrows would feel right at home.

A slender man with deep brown eyes, Kemp talks with thoughtful intensity about his work as he sits on a couch in his hot living room on a sunny afternoon in Bodega.

“People laugh sometimes when they look at my art, but then I want them to regroup and look again,” Kemp says. “What made you laugh? Are you whistling in the dark? Are you laughing because you don’t understand it, or because you understand it really well?”

Human relationships, with all their painful pitfalls and tragic ironies, serve as the artist’s main theme. Kemp draws on his experiences growing up in a large family to create such works as Grievous Angel, which was inspired by his relationship with his two brothers.

“I think being a brother can be extremely painful,” Kemp says. “That’s part of the twine that binds us together: Not just that we’re brothers and we love each other, but that there have been some bad times too.”

LITERATURE also informs Kemp’s work. Nineteenth-century poets rarely cross paths with modern pop culture. But, even if you’ve never taken a class in French poetry, you may well have heard of Arthur Rimbaud, if only because Leonardo DiCaprio played the troubled young poet in Total Eclipse. Kemp has seen the 1995 movie, but he’s also taken those challenging college classes.

Indeed, reading Rimbaud’s masterpiece The Drunken Boat–written when the poet was only 16–made such an impression on Kemp that 15 years later, when he found an opportunity to provide his illustrations to accompany a new translation of the poem, he didn’t hesitate.

The result of that two-year effort–just published in a very limited edition by Uroboros Press in San Francisco–is a striking pairing of Rimbaud’s surrealist poetry and Kemp’s darkly absurdist visuals.

“I was fascinated by the image of this man leaving civilization … going on this very mystical, surreal journey that has all kinds of ramifications,” Kemp says. “You don’t have to be in a boat on the water to take that trip.”

The new book is unlikely to hit the bestseller list anytime soon, in part because 19th-century poets don’t have the celebrity sales punch of, say, Monica Lewinsky, and in part because only 20 of the hand-worked copies have been produced. But the illustrations are on display at the SoFo2 gallery, and there will be a reading of and talk about the book Aug. 22 at a progressive dinner party jointly hosted by the CMA and the SoFo2 Gallery.

Kemp’s studio–which crowns the quirky old creamery building in Bodega–provides vivid testimony to the artist’s demanding craft and wide-ranging sources of inspiration. Decorating the walls of his workroom are everything from old magazine illustrations to his son’s handwritten math homework to sign-language charts. In one corner squats an old-fashioned printing press that must be cranked by hand.

The artist switches back and forth between drawing and printmaking and often mixes the two in his work. Kemp has been drawing since he was a child, but the demanding craft of printmaking caught his eye early in his college career.

“It seemed a really good venue for my obsession, for the way I work, which is very obsessive and detailed,” Kemp says. “It’s a gritty process. … I’m always attracted to surfaces that are distressed–I like the history.

“Often, I’ll actually let a piece of paper or a plate get scratched up and dirty before I start working.”

KEMP’S ART has long been an intimate part of his life. Before he moved to California eight years ago to teach at SSU, he often used the family garage as a studio, filling it with equipment and works in progress. One of Kemp’s favorite stories is about taking his 4-year-old son Cole on a visit to a friend with a more orthodox household arrangement. On the way home, Cole sat in the back seat, looking puzzled.

Finally, he explained what was bothering him: “Dad, why does that man keep a car in his studio?”

Perhaps the intimate connection Kemp has with his work stems from the fact that each piece demands an enormous investment of time and energy. Printmaking is an arduous process with built-in delays: Kemp draws an image, etches it onto a plate, then cleans it, and prints it. All this leaves plenty of opportunity for revision and new inspiration, but it also means that each piece can take a long time to finish. How long?

Even Kemp isn’t sure.

“Maybe because I don’t want to know, I’ve never actually kept track,” Kemp says. “I might scare myself if I found out how long it actually takes to do these damn things. But you don’t get to where I want to go without taking that time. There are no shortcuts.”

“Kurt Kemp: Inches across Miles” at the California Museum of Art and “The Drunken Boat and a Confluence of Inventory” at the SoFo2 Gallery–simultaneous Sonoma County exhibits of Kurt Temp’s work–run through Sept. 20. See the Art listing in the calendar on page 42 for more information. A progressive dinner party to celebrate the publication of the new translation of Rimbaud’s The Drunken Boat and to raise money for both art organizations will be held Aug. 22, beginning at the SoFo2 and finishing at the CMA. The dinner is limited to 50 guests. Tickets are $75. Call 527-0297 for more information.

From the August 13-19, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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