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Originally published in Art in America, May 1998

Arnold J. Kemp at ESP

In the two rooms that constitute this small space in the Mission District, Kemp presents his recent (all 1998) graphite drawings of "traditional" African imagery on mylar.

Sets of heavily rendered drawings in the first room with titles such as Untitled (Ceremonial Cup) and Untitled (Mask) are pinned to the wall in rows of two with five representatives of the same sculptural form in each row. The differences between the images occur in the undulating lines, transience of shadows and plays on patterning. These deviations invite consideration of the complexity that lies beyond the clichéd Africaness and infuse a fugitive quality into the drawings which makes them seem oddly alive. Everything in this show demands close scrutiny such as the two "ethnic" print curtains in taupes and blues that adorn the windows, creating an intimate setting. On closer inspection carefully camouflaged stick on eyes emerge from these homely devices radiating a sense of unease, of distance, of being watched - the viewer becomes the viewed, the spectator, the spectacle, the colonizer the colonized.

The long wall of the second gallery room houses looser, freer, less heavily rendered drawings incorporating splotches of color and rhinestones. In this series, the forms are delineated but not filled in, half-drawn masks are oftentimes coupled with colored blotches where vines sometimes grow, and King cobras and others serve as audience, subjects and foils. All of these elusive totems float in the ether of the barely perceptible mylar. The rhinestones, eyeing you as you wander, puncture and punctuate the sober forms.

Across from these lyrical drawings, a small photograph of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz, their three daughters and Mohammed Ali, Untitled (African-American Family) hangs. The image of Shabazz is weighted down with the addition of collaged African sculptural forms sitting on her lap. In addition to the work on the walls, a zine (Spirit and Image), produced by Kemp to accompany the exhibition, includes a fictional interview with himself, an article about an exhibition of Arman’s collection of African antiquities and various poems. All of this overloaded information concretely literalizes the exhibition serving to close instead of widen possible understandings.

Kemp uses charged icons to problematize issues of exoticism, otherness and authenticity. He copes with the question of what is real and what is artifice through obsessive copying and in so doing, unmasks the impossibility of truthful representation.

- Amy Berk