KENNSPEISERWORKS, an exhibition at the Newport Art Museum, was a career retrospective of well-known Providence artist Kenn Speiser, a visionary sculptor who adaptively recycles the banal into the beautiful. Visitors to the show were pleasantly confronted by a dazzling line-up of cutout shapes in some way oddly reminiscent of a highway construction site gone haywire. On some walls there is a flavor of industry demonstrating practical applications for their products. This exhibition is literally packed and stacked with unique works. Speiser’s interest and affection for unusual materials began to take root during his explorations into expanding a sculptural palette while an undergraduate at the Rhode Island School of Design. At this highly respected college of design, a prestigious and persuasive fine art faculty applauded experimentation without commercial application. The encouragement was enriched by the explosive creative reverberations of an “anything goes” atmosphere that followed the near-death of Abstract Expressionism. Artists began to admire the intellectual freedom of excavating novel art sources right under their unpierced noses.
Speiser particularly remembers being inspired by the visiting legendary German artist Dieter Rot, who created a topographical map of Greenland with Brie cheese, which turned into an anti-gourmet “Green-land” practically overnight. Adding fuel to the fire in this young art student’s belly was the concurrent creative revolution in New York City. Artists such as Robert Rauschenberg were assembling magical compositions from urban debris, while Jim Dine was transforming ordinary tools and household objects into elevated symbols of a pop vernacular. Jasper Johns cast a pair of painted bronze beer cans that became American icons, while Claes Oldenburg transformed common objects such as toilets into soft sculpture that together with other fraternity members such as Andy Warhol — who recreated Campbell’s soup cans and Brillo boxes —opened up a veritable floodgate of creative energy and acceptability.
Among Speiser’s delicious experiments was using blueberry pie filling as ink for silkscreening prints, which was about twenty years before Ed Ruscha’s gunpowder prints and Warhol’s diamond dust profiles. Later, after leaving art school, he had a stint with Impressions Workshop in Boston, which led to his own silkscreen printing business. The nature of print repetition and the patience and meticulous skill required to succeed would leave a lasting effect on the artist’s idiosyncratic signature, or even more appropriately his thumbprint.
Labor-intensive structure and precision seem to be key elements within the methodical hoops that Speiser eagerly jumps through with amazing grace and clarity. He is not afraid of taking on any process no matter how tedious or remarkably laborious to fulfill his vision. Especially breathtaking are early examples of his needlepoint ingenuity. In August (1978) the artist massed together a Noah’s Ark lineup of silhouetted creatures, poetically spaced together, generating a captivating whirlwind of sophisticated design.
Speiser can jump from one subject to a completely disparate one with an entirely different stylistic approach, incorporating the same dignity and extraordinary invention that has become a permanent “ism” for those who follow his career. There are simply no bounds for Speiser, except perhaps performance-oriented expression that does not fit comfortably within his oeuvre. Give this guy a box full of zippers and he’ll produce a conjunctive dangly sculpture that has an inherent and mysterious beauty on a par with early works by Eva Hesse and Donald Judd. Throw him a bag of golf balls and he’ll drive back a birdie that recreates itself into an ingenious pattern (see Balls to the Wall). In this lively show, Speiser cooked up breathtakingly beautiful “paintings” with raw materials not known for their aesthetic qualities, such as garden hoses or hacksaw blades.
In the end, it is Speiser’s absolute fascination with and ability to alter common objects that are sometimes overlooked, which is his true genius. A prime example, Hook, Hanger and Flap, the career equivalent to Picasso’s infamously simple Bull’s Head (1943, made from a bicycle’s handlebars and seat) takes an ordinary trucker’s mud flap and turns it (and us) on end. We discover an apparition of a woman’s dress form on a hanger that seems to celebrate realism — but that can only be described as a unique example of a Speiserism.
Written by Bruce Helander
Learning To See-An Artist’s View on Contemporary Art from Artschwager to Zakanitch
Published by StarGroup International