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May 13 / Simon

Exhibition of the week

The Independent, 12/5/2012

Chosen by Simon Tait

Michael Kenny: Spirit And Matter
Quest Gallery, Bath

On Michael Kenny’s gravestone in Highgate Cemetery is the title of a sculpture of his which stands in Gutenberg. It’s called More Loved Than Known, and to date the legend has been prophetic. Although he has a passionate following among the thousands of students he taught, who include Antony Gormley, Gerry Judah and Damien Hirst, and though his work is in the Tate, the British Museum and the V&A with his sculpture in public spaces around the world, since Kenny died in 1999 there has never been an exhibition of his work.

This discreet retrospective at the Quest Gallery in Bath – there are none of his monolithic geometrical stone pieces – is a reminder of how influential Kenny was before his death at 58. It is an exposition largely of his last decade’s work, mostly through 60 large drawings.

They are a sculptor’s drawings with lines almost carved from the paper, but he believed in drawing as an indispensable start to a process in which he was examining form, human and geometric. “Drawing is a means of searching for order out of chaos through images” he used to tell his students, and while some of these pieces translate easily into the great rough-hewn triangles, circles, semi-circles and columns of his standing pieces, many are drawings for their own sake. The large works on paper with human forms made with acutely accurate and often heavy lines also betray Kenny’s fascination with solitude, and how form and symbolism can be made to work together to create a narrative.

In the 90s, while not diverted by the troubles of the Royal Academy of which he was treasurer and would almost certainly have been president had his last illness not intervened, he was more prolific than ever. He was preoccupied by spiritual subjects – the search for love, the fear of abandonment, loss – and though he always described himself as a lapsed Catholic (he left home to evade his Liverpool Irish mother’s ambition for him to become a Jesuit priest), he is concerned here with human responses to spirituality exploring, for instance, Dante, the childhood of Neptune in Roman mythology or of King David. Yet each piece, no matter how large, is encapsulated by a hard border as if the action however painful is a performance within a proscenium, being played out on a base, a stage, which is often the only coloured element.

The desolate figure staggering on all fours in The whip of pride, Dante Purgatorio, Canto X of 1996 – his titles, he said, were “provocations” rather than descriptions – is assailed not by a whip but a flapping, shapeless black anonymity, and by the unremitting parallel vertical lines the figure is moving towards.
There are equally powerful formal pieces, such as his large Cathedral of 1990, but the exhibition is a timely reminder of a once powerful and vigorous voice in art that has been silent for too long,
Michael Kenny RA ‘Spirit and Matter’ is at the Quest Gallery, Margaret’s Buildings, Bath BA1 2LP until June 16.