|Cover Story - Friday, January 26, 2007
Kenney Mencher's provocative paintings challenge viewers
to tell their stories
by Rebecca Wallace
A Kenney Mencher painting is like a
man crying on a bus. You aren't supposed to watch, but something nags at
you to look closer. Maybe you'll find out the full story.
But you never quite do. Instead, the
Palo Alto artist's works inspire head-tilts and titters, stares, squeals
and speculation. These slices of life -- not your life, surely --
are painted from photographs in a Realist style, but depict such cryptic
scenes that viewers must dream up their own interpretations.
What's that guy whispering in that
girl's ear? Who are the three identical women with three identical dogs?
And why, oh why, is that lingerie-clad woman cavorting with someone in
a Scooby-Doo costume?
"I think it begins with wanting to
tell a story," Mencher says of his artwork, flopping onto a couch. "I'd
like to make paintings that tell stories like (illustrator) N.C. Wyeth
and Stephen King."
But he knows it's more than that. He
knows his paintings are Rorschach oils on canvas. He has a point, but you
have one, too.
Several viewers have made points about
Mencher's paintings by writing stories and poems based on them. Eager to
show off the ones he's posted on his Web site, Mencher scoots his laptop
across the coffee table in the downtown flat he shares with his wife, Valerie.
Their white dog, Zoey, watches intently from across the living room.
Snack," for instance, inspired a poem
including these lines:
"How thankful I am that I took this
to be my own true self in our romance
and in case you feel a certain urge
I've a Lassie suit up here upon the
Another painting, "Reference
Desk," has sparked many a thought. In it, a foxy librarian displays
shapely legs while a man looks on, clutching his hat in his hands. Mencher
says that, to him, the painting shows "how stupid men are." This guy becomes
"a dithering idiot" before a beautiful woman.
In one of the poems, though, the man
is an orthopedic surgeon, dismayed at the unhealthy contortion of the woman's
Mencher hoots delightedly, thinking
of all the possible takes on his work.
"When someone writes a story, that
means I've really nailed it. In a museum, you can tell if something is
good if people are talking about it," he says.
Mencher surely has given people something
to talk about. In 2004, four paintings were removed from his exhibit at
the California State Teachers' Retirement System office in Sacramento,
after some female employees said the works made them uncomfortable. The
four offending paintings included "Reference Desk" and "Another Roadside
Attraction," in which a woman in a black dress hovers next to a car. Some
people thought she was a prostitute.
Others have decided she was preparing
to steal the car, or just looking for her keys.
The previous year, Hang Gallery in
San Francisco had stopped carrying Mencher's work, with the gallery director
calling it "perverted," Mencher said.
The artist seems partly sympathetic
and partly amused by the rumpus. He says there's a difference between art
that is provocative and art that is designed to offend.
"People in California are really careful
of people's feelings," he says, adding that he completely understood the
Sacramento decision to take down his work. "You can't blame them. You never
know what someone will take exception to."
Still, Mencher confesses to being a
tad miffed when the Hang Gallery pulled his work. Afterwards, he says mischievously,
he started painting an entire series of male nudes.
In later solo exhibits at the Pacific
Art League in Palo Alto and the Mountain View Center for the Performing
Arts, Mencher says he "self-censored," showing only work that might be
"I don't want to be a censored artist;
I want to be a good artist," he says.
Deb Killeen, director of galleries
and promotions at the Pacific Art League, agreed with that decision, but
says she's a champion of his work, brouhaha or no.
"It's art that does what it's supposed
to do. It makes you look again and again," she said.
Mencher has lectured on art and art
history at the league, and Killeen said she hopes he'll return to speak
As with "Reference
Desk," many of Mencher's paintings explore the interplay between men
and women. In "After the Game," a
man wearing only socks and shoes, seen from the back, leaps around waving
pompons. A female cheerleader looks on with disdain.
Mencher says he was going for a subtext
about the power dynamic between men and women. The cheerleader is stereotypically
objectified by her body and short skirt, but here the man is the one stripped
down, made ridiculous by trying to get her attention.
"Sometimes there's more power in being
the object of desire," he says.
Of course, one could also view the
painting a million other ways. Perhaps the man is simply shouting: "Help!
My clothes have been stolen!"
Now Mencher has his work in galleries
that don't seem to offend easily, such as the Elliott Fouts Gallery in
Sacramento and the Klaudia Marr Gallery in Santa Fe.
"Sometimes the work is controversial,
but it just portrays human behavior," Marr said. "It's no more controversial
than we actually are."
Marr has shown Mencher's work since
October 2005, and his solo exhibition last November was very popular, she
"We immediately liked his work because
it was fresh: sometimes humorous, sometimes twisted," she said.
These days, Mencher is on sabbatical
from Ohlone College in Fremont, where he's associate professor of art and
art history. He's a Bronx native who previously taught at Texas A&M
Life on sabbatical suits the artist.
He gets up at 7, starts work at 8 in his home studio, and works till 5,
with dog Zoey padding around the house in his footsteps.
Mencher has plenty of company in his home studio: a painting in progress,
his collection of hats, and his sweet dog, Zoey. Below: Zoey gets to be
in “It Is What It Is” — three times. This is one of several Mencher paintings
of people contemplating a glass of water.
It is What It is, oil on canvas, 36"x48"
Closet oil on canvas 36" x48"
The artist himself sometimes makes an appearance — or two — in his
own works, including “Closet.” Here, Mencher’s wife took several
of him, which he then combined in the painting.