On the surface, Kenney Mencher's portraits, sketches, and paintings are traditional, modest affairs. Now on view through January 6, 2012, at the Art Museum of Los Gatos, many of the pictures in his show titled Renovated Reputations are just eight by ten inches, not all that far removed from their diminutive photo-booth and passport-photo sources.
In style, Mencher's art is mostly loose, sometimes evoking the hasty accuracy found on the covers of pulp fiction novels, or perhaps the New Yorker if illustrator Owen Smith's been given that week's assignment. Other paintings suggest the slow-moving, gray grainy monotone of film noir. For his show in Los Gatos, each gallery, regardless of which style prevailed, was outfitted with thrift-store couches and odd pieces of occasional furniture, so his paintings of mischievous school kids, stoic adults and smiling couples felt like family portraits in a home setting, albeit ones with dangling paper tags bearing their titles. To add to this atmosphere at the opening, anyone who cared to could duck into a vintage photo booth to have his or her picture taken (a hat rack crowned with fedoras was available for those who felt like getting into costume).
The props and contrived staging were all part of Mencher's quest to make artworks that tell stories, even if, especially if, those stories are pure fiction. In a social media spin, some of the yarns printed in a newspaper that accompanied the exhibition were written by visitors to Mencher's website, where he invites strangers to pen tales of the people in his work. Winning contributors are rewarded with a sketch or watercolor.
The contest aspect of Mencher's art is a tad gimmicky, but this is not just another cynical ploy to extract free content from writers in exchange for a fleeting bit of fame. Mencher appears to be sincerely energized by the serendipity that results from his online collaborations. Indeed, after his first foray into this new terrain last spring at the ArtHaus in San Francisco, he lined up this second show in Los Gatos and a third in January, 2012, at Santa Clara University. Two more incarnations of the exhibition are scheduled for February, one at Ohlone College in Fremont, where Mencher teaches, another at the Elliott Fouts Gallery in Sacramento.
Memory Game, Kenney Mencher.
At their best, Mencher's paintings defy the tropes of their conventions. Memory Game, for example, looks like a scene swiped from 1930s film noir, in which a pair of detectives (think a young Kevin McCarthy and Robert Mitchum) pumps the night clerk of a local boarding house for leads. For all I know, that's exactly the painting's source, but Mencher keeps this old chestnut fresh by giving us a double vision of the scene, seamlessly splitting the canvas into two halves so that the trio of men is presented from different perspectives. Swapping the positions of the detectives makes you think Mencher has merely mirrored his protagonists, but cleverly he has not.
Evan Tually, Kenney Mencher.
Other paintings, like the oil on Masonite of a young man unfortunately named Evan Tually are paired with Mencher's fiction, a predictable story of a kid whose father pushes him to confront the bully in his life even though he's no match for his cactus-hurling wife. A sketch of dad smoking a pipe hovers like a ghost behind Mencher's oil of the lad, while a collaged page from a comic book, chronicling dark discoveries late at night in the family bathroom, echo Mencher's melodrama.
Beyond Mencher's pun-hobbled titles (there are simply too many bad jokes here, even for me), I wearied of this world of smiling handsome people in hats, while the sexpot pin-ups that populate some of his canvases feel a long way from his work's Ash Can aspirations. Given the feedback he's getting to his work right now (art is usually a lonely affair), I get why Mencher probably views the world as a particularly sunny place, where, as the faux weather report on his newspaper's front page puts it, the morning promises to be beautiful, extending throughout the day. That's fine for one's life, but his art would benefit, I think, from a bit more messy menace and less cliché. Only a grouch could find nothing to admire here, but at the risk of raining on Mencher's parade, I'm hoping for a doozy of a thunderstorm. In this guy's capable hands, that would be something to see.
Renovated Reputations runs through January 6, 2012, at the Art Museum of Los Gatos. For information visit museumsoflosgatos.org.