Perhaps you know it can be a delicate business, having an Artist Friend. We all have at least one. As much as we’d like to imagine we’re super special snowflakes, the truth is our social networks are all populated by the same types. Joseph Campbell waxed lyrical on the hero with 1,000 faces, but who will sing the praises of the Frugal Friend, the one who pulls out a calculator when the restaurant bill comes? Or the Asperger’s Friend that talks too loud and embarrasses you at parties? Or the Artist Friend who covers Indigo Girls songs on open mic night and/or e-mails you his poetry?
“Now, wait a minute, missy” you’re thinking, “are YOU not my Artist Friend?” Well, yes, but I’m the polite sort of Artist Friend who’s not going to ask you to read my novel. (Also, I'm probably already busy being your Bitch Friend.) I remember talking about writing once with my friend M, one of those rare birds who is somehow simultaneously totally ironic and painfully sincere without coming off as a huge twat. (He makes me wonder if god is really, like, Robot Wes Anderson.) Once M told me a cautionary tale about his friend who wrote a really bad novel. “We were really proud that she finished this thing that was hundreds of pages,” he said. “On the other hand, there were fairies with clipped wings.”
His ambivalence, I believe, just about sums up the normative feelings one has for an Artist Friend—a sensation composed of equal parts cheerleading, pity, and intense secret shame. I imagine that looking at an Artist Friend's work is sort of like watching a retarded child at a talent show. Like: Yay! That’s so good…for you!
When I was in New York last summer, Kevin and I went to the New Museum to see the “Younger than Jesus” exhibit, which featured fifty under-33s who are definitely somebody’s Artist Friends, if you know what I mean. I left the museum with two important takeaways: (1) Even though I’m old, I’m still younger than Jesus. YES! (2) My generation kind of sucks at art. There were a few cool things and an awful lot of soulless video art starring people in bad wigs reading dictionaries by the light of, like, glow-in-the-dark dildos.
Later that afternoon, at a bar, I thumbed through a stack of Kevin’s recent prints and thought about how much better they were than almost everything we’d seen at the New Museum. His little collection seemed so well balanced—technically good without being so polished that it’s boring. His work is beautiful but never precious. It’s clever without being gimmicky, thoughtful but not overwrought. He offers a point of view without ever being obvious or didactic, which, as any artist younger than Jesus can tell you, is really, really hard to do.
Kevin has a painter’s eye for color, a way of teasing out saturated greens, rich browns, and pretty blues from landscapes that are recognizable, but somehow heightened, as though you’ve gone on a hike with a fever. It’s all shot through with this amazing electric earthy orange that’s like red clay mixed with blood—a charged palette befitting his rural settings, which are anything but tranquil.
I believe Kevin has taken some of the best elements of the Southern Gothic aesthetic—the gritty beauty of the opening sequence from True Blood, the sinister weirdness of those Boys for Pele-era Tori Amos portraits with creepy farm animals and dirty mattresses, the fire in the gut of a Flannery O’Connor character—and made them wholly his. His “Gap Creek RD” series showcases the menace and melancholy and unease and wit that are hallmarks of a Southern sensibility: a shed at the end of a lonely path, Bud Light boxes filled with disembodied deer heads, a solitary bone lying on a rocky bank.
Kevin works in the tradition of what I’m going to call found-object photography, meaning that his subjects are happened upon in real life rather than conceived of and created. (There is probably a real word for this, but you get the idea.) I admire his knack for imbuing these unstaged scenes with such a strong sense of narrative and mystery. He has an eye for story, a real gift for being suggestive in a way that never seems forced or contrived. Like a cat that drops a dead mouse at your feet as a present, his pictures are offered honestly and without fanfare.
I think it is that sense of openness, of speaking plainly, that helps him convey a sense of wide-eyed wonder without letting things get too twee. Some of my favorite images are what I think of as his fairy tale photographs. Glimpsed through heavy foliage, a white horse might be a mythical creature; a concrete sidewalk makes a gnarly tree seem like a relic from some forgotten civilization.
He has a keen eye for subjects that seem somehow incongruous with their own contexts. It’s a really interesting take on magic, like he’s collecting forensic evidence of the unseen world.
But what I like most about Kevin’s work is what I like most about Kevin himself: his awesome sense of humor. Just when you decide he must a little cynical re: the whole man v. nature theme:
he shows he can have a sense of humor about the whole nature reclaiming the earth thing:
This last picture, one of my favorites, is charming and depressing at the same time—a worldview that’s pretty spot-on, if you ask me.