Scoutmaster oil on wood 18x24"
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|San Jose Mercury News
The Eyes of the Beholder Jack Fischer ,
07:16 PM Sunday, April 02, 2006
I hear from Kenney Mencher every so often. It’s something I suspect I share with at least a few others in the Northern California press corps. Mencher, an associate professor of art & art history at Ohlone College, Fremont, likes to let us know who he has offended now.
Professor Mencher is a realist painter of real talent who happens to have an irresistable urge to push people’s buttons. He does this with paintings that suggest -- and occasionally depict -- some of the more lascivious byways of the human heart. They also can be hilarous, in a disconcerting way.
The best of them do their work by implication. Something is happening in the picture that gives you the willies, but it can be hard to decide whether the cause, dear Brutus, lies in Mencher’s depiction or in what you’ve brought to the party yourself.
(A case in point, “Scoutmaster,” pictured here.)
I say the best do their work by implication because these retain a level of narrative ambiguity that can’t be exhausted in repeated viewings. In the painting “Los Angeles’’ a middle-aged man in a suit sits a a living room couch apparently lost in thought while outside the window a young man walks by the back yard swimming pool in a skimpy bathing suit. Is the man in the suit engaged in a homo-erotic reverie? Or is this juxtiposition simply a neutral fleeting moment?
Mencher knows the trick that good photographers learn early in their careers: that the act of selecting something to be in a picture implies that its maker is sharing it because it is in some way meaningful. The result is that the viewer searches for that meaning, not realizing he may be supplying himself.
This higher level of subtly has the added benefit of not inclining people to throw Mencher and his work out the door, as happened in 2003, when the Hang Gallery in San Francisco decided his work was too “wry and perverted’’ in the words of the gallery’s director, Michelle Townsend. It happened again the following year when Mencher managed to offend employees of the California State Teachers’ Retirement System office, where four of his paintings were hanging. The workers found them harrassing and demanded they be removed.
The act of censoring an artist based on his content has the effect of making the censor seem like a prig even though it is hard to argue anyone should be forced to view a picture they find nettlesome.
It also is likely to win the hearts of newspaper reporters, who are reflexively inclined to object to the abridgement of anyone’s First Amendment rights, even if it’s just the right of a painter to depict a woman dancing in her bra with someone dressed up like Scooby-Doo, as Mencher does in “”Scooby Snack.’’ I suspect the censorship issue also is why Mencher seems to have gotten more attention from news reporters than art critics.
(“Another Roadside Attraction,’’ one of the paintings censored by the California State Teachers Retirement System office in 2004)
And that’s a shame because an art world that has decided to lionize John Currin for his kitchy depictions of large busted women should have at least a place in the corner for Mencher, even if Currin is undeniably technically a much better painter.
If you’re interested in deciding first-hand what you think of Mencher’s mischief, a selection of his works is on exhibit at the Esteban Sabar Gallery in Oakland through May 29.
Assuming someone doesn’t get annoyed again.
In which case, I’m sure he’ll let me know.