James Kirkpatrick: To The Unseen Future
Judith and Norman Alix Art Gallery, Sarnia
November 2, 2018 – January 6, 2019
We all walk on the same earth. Anthropologically speaking, we all have the same origins. And even farther back, we all started as a vibration that remains within us still. But some of us live in that vibration at a higher intensity than others and I would certainly place London-based artist James Kirkpatrick in that category.
Kirkpatrick’s seemingly boundless creative energy and prolific artistic productivity find an outlet in a wide spectrum of subculture genres that transverse cultures, such as graffiti art, street art, rap music, hip-hop, electronic and circuit-bent sound constructions, noise performance and zine publishing – all forms of art that challenge conventions of how art is made and where art is viewed.
In theory, Kirkpatrick’s artistic energy shouldn’t be contained within the traditional context of an art gallery, with its “Do not touch” restrictions and its imposing admonition that one should move quietly from room to room and only speak in hushed tones. But the Judith and Norman Alix Art Gallery in Sarnia has boldly taken on the challenge of mounting this major James Kirkpatrick retrospective and curator Lisa Daniel’s is to be commended for finding ways to capture and display the vibrancy of Kirkpatrick’s art within the gallery confines.
Those who exist on the same frequency as Kirkpatrick – like fellow street artists, hip-hop and graffiti artists – might home in on the Kirkpatrick vibe even before entering the gallery when they behold the bold, street-art colours of enlarged masks on the glass windows at the front entrance of the gallery. These large, animated faces with dark eyes and wide-open mouths, seem to be calling the viewer inside. Others might achieve an altered state of mind and body when they approach the two inflatable, motion-activated sculptures, entitled Sound Heads, that stand like life-size sentinels in front of the ground floor reception area. Emitting an electronic beeping sound as you pass by, your role as a viewer in the gallery has changed.
You are now a participant in the art, a co-creator.
The gallery has extended a significant amount of space to this exhibition with Kirkpatrick’s work on all three floors. On the second floor, there is one room with a long blackboard where gallery goers can create their own chalk graffiti if they so wish. In the same room, a recently created music video, entitled Ink or Paint, is playing on a flat screen monitor underneath the label of “Thesis Sahib” which is Kirkpatrick’s performance name. The continuously looping video is Kirkpatrick rapping about his call to paint graffiti on the side of train cars. Adjacent to this is a similar-sized monitor with attached hand controls where the viewer is invited to play a rather fun but challenging video game, entitled Spinch. The game itself is a collaborative construction between game designer Jesse Jacobs and Kirkpatrick, who created the songs and sound effects for it.
It is on the 3rd floor that you really feel the intensity of Kirkpatrick’s productivity with approximately 40 two-dimensional wall paintings, interspersed with numerous three-dimensional floor and wall structures, all produced over the last 20 years. Many of the wall paintings feature images of cartoon-like characters placed on a linear grid like in a Game Boy or Pac Man game. These animation-like characters are bunched together like small figures on an 80s video game screen, or sometimes just two or three such figures stand within a single picture frame. In their flatness and brightness, they seem to make a tongue-in-cheek statement on the tradition of abstract painting.
The large, spacious centerpiece of the main room is reminiscent of a television stage with curvy elevated steps inviting the viewer to, “Come on up,” and be a part of what is happening. The two sound pieces on the stage, entitled Sound Towers, 2014, and In the Sky, 2016, were originally constructed for Kirkpatrick’s Secret Base by the Lake exhibition at the McIntosh Gallery, at Western University (2014). The two wall-like structures on either side of this stage are reminiscent of a rotating game show set. The set itself is specifically designed by the gallery to showcase Kirkpatrick’s sound pieces. People are invited to move around in this space carrying sound-making pieces mounted on pedestals and, depending on their proximity to other objects in the space, sounds are emitted through circuit-bent electronics.
The five sound structures in this exhibition allow gallery-goers to unleash their own creative self as motion-sensitive electronics produce unexpected compositions. The painted finish of these pieces is rather raw, with rough edges and paint applied unevenly, suggesting the energy and furtive sense of urgency of a graffiti artist at work.
Also, in the main room on the third floor are a number of three-dimensional wall and floor structures. The Talking That Influences (2008) is one that extends well into the gallery space. This was originally constructed for a travelling exhibition, which included Museum London, St Mary’s University (Halifax) and the MOCA (Toronto). These structures are made up of reclaimed and reshaped boxes arranged in such a way as to tell a narrative, although we are not sure what that narrative is. The objects placed inside and outside of the boxes are also made of reclaimed materials, some of which are playful while others have an eerie feeling. The box shapes are connected by ropes with patterned cloth hanging from them, suggesting the transfer of energy or some form of communication that moves from box to box and finally results in the shadow form of an abstract child-like figure projected on the wall.
The shadow image itself is startling – the stylized triangular shape suggests a little girl’s dress, but it is a little girl with a horrifying head, possibly the result of exposure to some deadly toxin. The structure, when viewed all together, suggests ritual, ancient civilizations, storytelling, or something from a science fiction film; all themes that fascinate Kirkpatrick. In the smaller room on this floor is a complementary floor-to-wall structure with a similarly ominous tone. Also constructed of reclaimed wood and wooden boxes, The Way (2008) grew out of an adventurous travelling experience in Cuba where Kirkpatrick unexpectedly became deeply immersed in the culture of the Cuban people.
One section of the exhibition has a different tone than the rest of the show. It is the wall collage of 14 separate pieces that, together, appear to have some connection to water and sailing. Placed in the smaller room, it seems to need more space for proper viewing. This wall collage was mainly arranged by the curator, Lisa Daniels, in consultation with the artist and the staff. As one piece of work, it serves as a kind of autobiography of the artist, drawing on Kirkpatrick’s’ childhood when he and his father sailed the Great Lakes. Underlining these pieces is a narrative of a father/son relationship and the impact that life at sea has had on Kirkpatrick as well as the sense of freedom that sailing and a love of surfing offer. The inherent rhythm of the waves and their ceaseless ebb and flow, lie beneath much of Kirkpatrick’s art, particularly his music. The sail material used in the construction of many of the pieces comes from the actual sail of his father’s boat. The swaths of bright colours against a white background and the use of bright bold numbers result in another form of abstract art, this one utilizing fabric.
Masks are everywhere in Kirkpatrick’s work, reflecting, perhaps, his fondness for television cartoon series and his love of science fiction movies and television shows such as V, Star Wars, Transformer, Ninja Turtles, and Dr Who. Behind these characters are common narratives such as good versus evil, world domination, heroes who fight to eradicate injustice – themes that have been played out through civilizations over time and which turn up today in talk of conspiracy theories, corporate control, and a world under global threat.
There is so much happening with Kirkpatrick’s art and the intensity is infectious. For those who have become dulled by the imposed structures of our day to day lives, this exhibition just might provide the tonic to boost your own frequency level and awaken your consciousness as you walk out to confront the unseen future.