So often Midwest landscapes — without oceans or mountains — are seen as uninspiring. But Emily Kennerk, a Zionsville, Ind., native, engages viewers with spaces in-between America’s coasts. Drives along I-65 through the suburbs provided motivation for Kennerk’s first American museum exhibition, Suburban Nation, in the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s Forefront galleries.
Kennerk is fascinated with what she calls collisions: areas where land meets sky to form the horizon or where cultural structures impact natural orders. Suburbia becomes its own landscape in her four meticulous installations, three inside and one outdoors. (Outside is “Boundaries,” where, regrettably, lack of rain and outdoor signage cause the manipulated grass work to go almost unnoticed.)
I met Kennerk in the late 1990s when she was finishing her Stutz artist residency and on her way to Cranbrook’s graduate program. She had shown a work on the now defunct “IN Indiana” wall space, which seemed the only way a contemporary Indiana artist could exhibit at IMA. What a pleasure to see that Kennerk’s studio practice duly caught the eye of IMA’s contemporary curator, Lisa Freiman. Kennerk was given the opportunity to create her most rigorous works to date.
Acting like a contractor or project manager, Kennerk collaborated with installers to create three room-size gallery works to her exacting specifications. Viewers seemed amused yet puzzled by Kennerk’s art materials, such as pre-fab white vinyl siding, gutters and screen doors that might be found on their Hamilton County condos.
A relationship between a digital photograph of a landscaped mound next to a farm field with natural tree row helps one decipher the first installation, “Welcome Home.” The shapes, shadows and positioning of red commercial awnings in the installation mimic both a grouping of distant trees and manipulated earth forms.
The monumental “High Density” consists of two, full-scale and prominent garages leading to recessed entryways with inoperable screen doors. Materials and assembly methods are taken “straight out of the field,” as Kennerk said to an overflow crowd at her recent gallery talk. Garages are built 4 feet apart as they sometimes are in a suburb. But the homes are functionless as living spaces, so what is their purpose? Might interpretation be reduced to cultural commentary about homogenization? Although Kennerk asserts her depiction of suburbia is not intended to be a critique, how could it not be?
Meaning expands with a focus on materials and forms as they appear in the gallery setting, not as they would function commercially. The 4-foot space between the garages becomes a contemplative painting of light and shadow that converges where the gallery’s walls meet. The result is a Minimalist work not unlike the Robert Irwin piece found in another gallery on the same floor. Surprisingly, beauty can be bought in a “big box” store, if assembled like Kennerk’s installations.
Suburban Nation continues through Oct. 7. For more information, call 317-923-1331 or go to www.ima-art.org.