We've Always Done it this Way, oil/canvas, 24x48"
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Library, oil on canvas 36x36"

To Half and Half Not, oil/canvas 36x48"

The Music Lesson, oil/canvas 24x24"

Bodega, oil on panel 10x16"
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Providence Journal - Providence, RI, USA
Art scene by Bill Van Siclen: 
Works that deal with doubt, mystery and ambiguity
01:00 AM EDT on Thursday, September 8, 2005

If there's one phrase artists dread hearing, it's "I don't get it." After all, most artists like to think they have something to say, and if that message isn't getting through, then somebody -- artist or viewer -- must be at fault. (By comparison, the phrase "I don't like it" puts the onus squarely on the viewer.)

A happy exception to this rule is Kenney Mencher, a California artist whose teasingly enigmatic paintings are on display at the new DIG Fine Art gallery on Federal Hill. Rather than avoiding things like doubt, mystery and ambiguity, Mencher's paintings positively revel in them.

A good example is Library, one of about a dozen works in "Kenney Mencher: Clichés and Proverbs." In a scene that appears both completely natural and strangely suggestive, a young man is whispering in the ear of a young woman. What are they whispering about? Are we witnessing a pick-up in progress or are they simply trading the latest book gossip?

Searching for clues, we take a closer look at the man and woman. We note, for example, that both are casually dressed (neither appears to be a high-powered business type) and that, so far at least, she seems to be as interested in listening to him as he does in speaking to her. We also notice that he seems a bit bleary-eyed, as though he might be mildly drunk or stoned.

Ultimately, though, such clues don't take us very far. No matter how hard we try, we'll never know what secrets these two people are sharing. Even the painting's title -- Library -- turns out to be a tease, since the only book in sight is a single large tome that sits on a table in front of this oddly mysterious couple.

Like the conversation we can't hear, the book we can't read piques our curiosity even as it refuses to satisfy it.

THOUGH ALL OF Mencher's paintings present viewers with varying degrees of ambiguity, some work harder at it than others.

Works such as To Half and Half Not, with its mirror-image portraits of an angry young woman watched over by pictures of wild animals, and We've Always Done It This Way, with its conga line of blindfolded businessman, have the playfully enigmatic, theater-of-the-absurd look of paintings by Surrealist masters such as Rene Magritte and Salvador Dali.

Other works, including a pair of small paintings of restaurant workers (Pizza Italia) and people lounging outside a storefront (Bodega), have the quick, spur-of-the-moment look of painted snapshots.

Still, Mencher's best paintings are those in which an everyday scene or gesture is subtly transformed into something richly and teasingly complex. Library is one such work. So is The Music Lesson, another painting in which a seemingly innocent gesture -- in this case, an instructor's hand resting on the shoulder of his pretty young student -- is open to various interpretations.

At times like this, Mencher's work manages to seem completely contemporary (think of him as the West Coast's answer to New York painter Eric Fischl) while still managing to channel Old Master artists such as Frans Hals and Vermeer (who, by the way, did his own version of The Music Lesson).

"Kenney Mencher: Clichés and Proverbs" runs through Sept. 30 at DIG Fine Art, 374 Atwells Ave. in Providence. Hours: Thurs.-Sat. 11-5. Phone: (401) 277-4278.