By Matthew Falk
Kevin Kucken has a thing for Barbies. His home studio is filled with the naked dolls, contorted into unnatural poses, covered with paint, and stuck to canvasses. "This is my newest series," he says. "My daughter gives them to me." He points to one on all fours, plastic ass in the air: "I've showed a lot of these to different people, both male and female. The girls always like this one."
While the Barbie dolls are new for Kucken, repetition and found objects are not. "I work in big series. There'll be at least a dozen of whatever I'm doing." He has "tons" of abstract works painted on wire mesh, for instance, a medium he discovered more than a decade ago after his father, an employee of Detroit Edison, brought some home from work. "They would treat it with industrial chemicals and use it for insulation for big generators. My dad … started making all kinds of weird shit out of it. He was doing a dog house, and I'm like, wow, that's cool stuff, can you get me some of that?"
Finding materials is an important part of Kucken's creative process. He enjoys salvaging industrial detritus and turning it into art. "What's great about America, about living here, is if you really need something, all you have to do is look for it. Just go driving around, you'll find whatever you're looking for" at the side of the road or in someone's trash.
Sometimes friends bring him treasures, too. A 5-gallon bucket of rubber ducks that someone left on his front porch sparked inspiration for what he calls "my favorite thing that I've ever done." Upon coming home and finding the bucket, Kucken was immediately so inspired by these ducks, he recalls that "I actually pulled another painting off the wall, grabbed two cans of paint and went at it with my hands. Big handfuls of paint, splat, splat, splat, and then the ducks. I started dipping them in the paint and sticking them on there. I was like an animal, it just happened."
That level of spontaneity is normal for Kucken. "A lot of my favorite paintings just happened on the spur of the moment." When an artwork is going well, Kucken says, "You just kind of watch yourself. 'Something amazing's happening, what is going on here?' Those are the ones, those paintings when it's like you're tapped into something else. You're watching your hands move."
Talking again about his love of multiples, Kucken acknowledges that his methods occasionally lead him into the realm of obsession. "My friends had to have an intervention once," he laughs. Showing me a series of small, abstract, minimalist "landscapes" that look like sine waves, he says, "I was doing probably 15 or 20 of these a day for like a month and a half. And finally my friends were like, 'Whoa, dude, what are you doing? You're starting to freak us all out!' And I had to promise that I wouldn't paint another one."
The lack of conscious planning in Kucken's work doesn't prevent viewers from finding "deep philosophical meaning" in it, he says. Once he made a sculpture from a large, metal, industrial milk canister he found. It was "full of bullet holes, it was all rusty. ... And I found this old game called 'Time Bomb.' It was shaped like a bomb, and I think you pushed a button, it was like Hot Potato—if it blew up in your hands, you lost. So I took that … and I was like, look, this fits right on top of this milk thing. So I said, 'This one is done,' and I was laughing my ass off." But when he put it in a show, "people were freaking out on it, going, 'That really does reflect industrial society,' talking about postal workers and factories." He sold the piece at the show.
But reclaiming man-made materials is only one aspect of Kucken's aesthetic. He also finds inspiration in the natural world, spending a lot of time in the woods around his Midland home. "I'll go for a walk or a bike ride, I'll study the clouds. ... Every time it snows I'm blown away, like I've never seen it before." He likes to paint outdoors, although when he leaves a piece out to dry he's likely to find that "the raccoons have left paw prints in it. Sometimes I'm like, 'They really did a fine job,' but usually not. They have no design mind."
Music is another of Kucken's passions. "People are always like, 'Man, what's the meaning of life?' Well, it's music. It's rhythm and chaos, and it's beautiful." According to Kucken, rhythmic patterns underlie all sorts of natural phenomena. "The grass doesn't grow even—it's erratic, it has this rhythm. That's how nature is, whether it's grass, whether it's galaxies, whether you're flying over the earth. Everything has these certain chaotic patterns or formulas. And there's not tons of them that make up life, they're pretty simple. They're in the trees and the clouds…. You know, you can be walking on the beach with the sand under your feet when the water is shallow, and the sand gets these ripples. And cars going down dirt roads really fast make the same patterns. They're everywhere, in the way air moves across fields."
Asked to cite some artistic influences, Kucken says, "I'm influenced by the planet and the sun [and] getting up every morning. It's like, 'Wow, I did it again, I'm here!'" Among other painters, he names Dalí ("because he's a technician, a classical technician") and Mondrian, whose "sense of balance is dead-on," as well as "kids on the street doing graffiti." His very favorite artists, however, "are the ones I've worked with, like Paolo [Pedini] and Libby [Booth]. Anyone can paint. My landlord, he can learn. I can teach anyone color theory. But those cats bring something extra."
As his praise for his peers shows, Kucken has a strong sense of community. "Artists need to gather and work together, and they need to watch each others' back, because we're all insane." He feels the Tri-Cities scene is tight, but he would like to see more participation and larger audiences. "What gets me lately is that there are a lot of artists and a lot of musicians in this area who are diamonds in the rough. But I see a lot of shows where people will come up from Detroit, travel a long way, and no one comes. It's like, dude, support the artists. If some artist is coming to your town to do a show, be there! If you don't support it, it's not going to happen anymore."
Although Kucken is not a fan of applying labels to art, if he had to pick a name for his style, "it would be Intergalactic Modernism. Because I think it would hold up, it would stand strong no matter what planet I show it on. They'd be like, 'Yeah, I feel that. I'm part of this universe, I'm for it.'" With that in mind, he's currently working on a machine to transport him to a solar system where the economy is better and the government subsidizes all artists.
© Matthew Falk, 2009