We often don’t give a second thought to keys as objects. We get them, give them away, swap them, make copies, give them back, and then they leave our minds forever. They go to some far-off land, an island of misfit items, home to orphaned socks and loose bobby bins. Seldom do we think of their functional and nostalgic power, but that is exactly what compelled artist Kathleen Kennedy to pay homage to these remarkably unremarkable objects in her latest installation piece: a chainmail pelt made entirely of keys. Entitled simply Pelt, it is being showcased this month in Material as Medium, the exhibition currently on display in Alexandria at the Torpedo Factory Art Center’s Target Gallery. Each featured artist uses the vernacular of textiles and fiber art, broadly interpreted into sculptural forms. The opening reception included a group discussion with the show’s juror, Aaron McIntosh. Both he and Kennedy teach at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, the institution where her love affair with sculpture first blossomed.
“I finished at VCU with my BFA in 2008. I studied metalsmithing and glass working there. After that, I moved to Seattle, Washington for about three years where I worked for a handful of different artists and really made the decision that art was something I was going to do.” Later, while in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Kennedy spent several years experimenting with a variety of materials. She draws on these lessons when working today, finding inspiration from the many mediums she has mastered over time. Her hope is that she never finds herself limited in her artistic pursuits. “My students will often ask what I specialize in, like: What’s your thing? My answer is that I’m a generalist. I like to feel like I generalize in a little bit of everything. Specialize in nothing and try a little bit of everything.” Despite this outlook, Kennedy keeps glass and metal close to her heart. The manipulability and control she has in these elements offers a delightful juxtaposition between the hardness and softness. “Glass really seemed like this magical material to me and metal was almost a little bit of the opposite. Not opposite in that it wasn’t magical, but it wasn’t this fluid material. It was this structured, hard material that had so many possibilities to it, that just kind of stuck.”
Kennedy’s process is informed by the impressive power of nostalgia. Upon seeing Pelt up close for the first time, I discovered that one of its keys looked exactly like the key to my first car. During our interview, I confessed to her how it took me back to the excitement of getting my first set of wheels at the age of 16. This personal reaction pleased her, as she responded, “That’s what I really wanted, to be able to use this object that is so familiar to everybody. That you could look at that pelt and you could find the familiar in it.” Another aspect in many of Kennedy’s pieces is the sentimental tie to her family. While pursuing her MFA, she often used art to recall relatives back home in Virginia. Kennedy remembered missing her parents the most, but also that her feelings of separation were a source of inspiration. In one such sculpture, she stacked brass rings on a wall-mounted installation of a kitchen counter, echoing her father who would always take his wedding ring off to wash the dishes.
Pelt came together after months of accumulating keys, some coming from a small collection given to her by a late grandfather and others coming from the darkest recesses of eBay. Kennedy painstakingly set each link of the chainmail that binds together the outer layer. She made note to arrange each of key according to color and shape, creating a lush surface of steel and brass, the varied textures reflecting light much as thick fur would. Though at a distance they meld together into a flowing mass, each key retains its unique identity as a utilitarian object. “Keys come and go,” she mused, “They’re useful for their time and then we don’t need them anymore. But they’re always cut for that specific lock, for that specific place. That’s kind of what’s so special. Even the one that looks like that key to your first car, if you were to take it and put it in your first car, it’s not for that car. That’s the amazing, beautiful mystery to me.” Being identified as a pelt, rather than a more common article of clothing or home decor, is also significant. Simultaneously playing off of archaic textiles, medieval royalty, and fantasy images like those found in Game of Thrones, Kennedy explained, “I was originally seeing it as a blanket of keys, as this domestic comfort of keys. But when I finished it and had it up there, I was like, this isn’t a blanket. This is a skin. The skin of all of the places you’ve been.”
As a centerpiece of the show, draped dramatically off of a pedestal near the gallery entrance, Pelt commands the viewer’s attention. Despite resting below eye level, the intimate space allows the work’s presence to be that much more overwhelming. Other notable pieces from the show include the enigmatic quilt assemblage of Julia Gartrell’s Old Man, Lindsay A. Hall’s subdued yet provocatively hung Blinged Out, and Katie M. Westmoreland’s monochromatic embroidery Sift No. 4 (Traced). Together, the Material as Medium collection offers a compelling testament to the vitality of textiles. The sheer variety of forms, textures, and even interactivity is unmatched by other mediums, all qualities that are giving voice to a new generation of contemporary conceptual artists.
Photography by Ash Grace