Amber Kempthorn at 1point618
“I can’t stand people,” laughs artist Amber Kempthorn. She’s kidding, I think (she seems really nice), but we’re standing in
a room full of mixed media, mainly large-scale compositions on paper, richly ornamented and plentifully populated with
various imaginary animals – with not a single human face.
Never mind; as someone has observed, animals are the best people, and that holds true at the exhibit “Was it a dream,
was I in it?” The world that Kempthorn depicts is a textually intricate place populated by creatures derived from the pages
of Tolkien and Lewis, or inspired by the lyrics of dozens of songs as they resonate with her life experience. Her works are
really a bibliophile’s and music lover’s paradise, a land of negative space and subtle tonal shifts located somewhere
between childhood book illustrations and the dramatic balance of Japanese Ukiyo-e prints. Works in her recent show at
architect Robert Maschke’s 1point618 gallery are either sparely monochromatic, or feature broad swathes of sight-
absorbing blue and red, soaking into the creamy texture of toothy handmade paper. Her quasi-comic wind-up birds, zip-up
buffaloes, and fictional beasties vie elegantly for position with background areas of collage made from cut paper,
reminiscent of origami and kimono patterns. Other parts are stenciled, and each picture seems like a low-relief stage
where cut-out characters re-enact scenes based on different aspects of the artist’s personal history. “Myrtle,” for
instance, is named after the street where Kempthorn lived as a child. It shows three islands or chunks of earth floating at
the top margin of a blue sky dotted with colorful hot air balloons. Higher in the picture a red-striped upper atmosphere
looks like Old Glory, as a V formation of black clouds descends, eclipsing a nascent rainbow.
Kempthorn has about a thousand favorite songs and bands; music echoes through her house as she makes her pictures,
and most of her works have a specific theme song attached to them, at least in her mind. A life-long Springsteen junkie,
she confides that the underlying tune for “Myrtle” is The Boss’s great 1980 hit tune “Hungry Heart.” The title of the show
itself is a line from the song On Your Own by The Verve. She cites the early 1990’s alt rock band Blur as another favorite.
One composition pays homage to the so-called “shoegazing” Britpop scene of which that group was a part. Two long-
legged birds with windup keys stuck in their backs stare down at their athletic shoe-clad feet. The image is a little funny,
and a lot melancholy, and in general hard to place. It belongs in a children’s book context, maybe, as an amusement more
than a work of art. Yet that interpretation is too facile; it is perhaps an image of a state of mind that, like the birds, has its
roots in one world and its beak in another. Kempthorn’s reference here is, in part, to “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle” -- a
sprawling 1995 surrealistic novel by the Japanese author Haruki Murakami. The wind-up bird in the book is so called
because of its mechanical, repetitive cry – a marker for a disassociated postmodern relation of mind to spirit,
autobiography to history. At one point in the narrative the protagonist’s wife Kumiko observes, “There’s a kind of gap
between what I think is real, and what’s really real.” Kempthorn's images operate in such a gap, loosely lacing together
eras and conditions of the soul.
-- Douglas Max Utter
Amber Kempthorn: Was it a dream, was I in it?
June 18 – July 23, 2010
1point618 Gallery 6421 Detroit Ave. Cleveland, OH