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New York Times
Published: November 9, 2001
The first New York gallery show by the San Francisco-based artist Arnold J. Kemp
is a small, deftly shaped thematic installation. In photographs and a video, a figure is seen wearing various versions of a Ku Klux Klan hood. In one case it is made of standard-issue white cloth; in another it is imitated by a paper bag. Elsewhere it is fashioned from brightly patterned West African fabrics.
In the past, Mr. Kemp exhibited graphite drawings of African masks and sculptures, basing his work on photographs from art history books. In both laboriously copying and altering already reproduced images he pointed up how conceptually malleable objects are. The spiritual emblems of one culture become the ethnological specimens and aesthetic models of another. At Debs, he does something similar but different with the K.K.K. emblem. The racist implications are implied, but the hoods are linked up with modern African fashion styles and with African masking traditions that are animated by the power of ritualistic secrecy. Here evil becomes prettified, neutralized, even acceptable.
What Mr. Kemp's has produced is a low-key version of the play with race and stereotypes seen in much American art in recent years. He owes a debt to other artists, Yinka Shonibare among them, but comes through with something of his own. And as if to keep things buoyant he includes a mini-installation within the show. The underside of a shelf holding photographs is lined with stick-on plastic googly eyes, which are reflected in a mirror on the floor. Staring upward, they are like a cartoon surveillance device, putting art and viewer alike under scrutiny.
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