Painted Lives: Making room for the figures who live with us in the paintings we own

Tim Kennedy<i>, Getting up</i>, 2008 

Three more people moved into my one-bedroom apartment today. Two young women and a young man, he insisting on walking around shirtless and barefoot. They are already at home in the kitchen—the young man making coffee on the stove, one of the women rummaging in the refrigerator for breakfast fare and the other pulling a volume from a bookcase.

Since we are just getting to know one another, there is a slight awkwardness we all feel. They seem reluctant to look me in the eye, and I keep shooting surreptitious glances at the young man—lovely, slim, copper-haired, his body seemingly radiating warmth from having just awakened. I’ve welcomed them inside, since this is their home now, too, and I have suggested that they can live on a living room wall they will share with photographs of buildings and a portrait of another young man I brought into my home a couple of years ago. It’s likely that these three newcomers might be moved to the opposite wall or, perhaps, to the other room over my bed.

I own many figurative paintings by working artists—Ken Harris, Betty Ragan, Michael Elsasser, Mary Connelly, Yana Movchan, among them. These three new people are situated in Tim Kennedy’s five-by-four-foot canvas entitled Getting Up, referring to the morning routine they are following in their Bloomington, Indiana, craftsman-style house. This is the second Kennedy painting I have acquired. When I purchased the first one, June, I readily brought those three new people into my home—a young man and woman playing cards on a screened porch and another figure reading by lamplight inside. Even though my walls are filled with canvases large and small, sixty-eight at last count, though there are others hidden in my closet, I don’t buy paintings very often. I am surprised, in fact, by how rare it is that I find something I want to own. Like many collectors of paintings, I am very careful about what I buy, what I can afford and who I really want to live with. So that after a new work enters my apartment and I’ve pried apart the plywood crate (always getting a splinter that takes weeks to grow out), peeled away the packing materials, pounded in the hooks and coiled the hanging wire, there is an adjustment that needs to be made as to how I will live with it.

Do I want to look at these newly arrived people at every meal from my dining table? Or do I prefer to keep them in the bedroom, where I spend less time and where fewer guests may meet them? And how close to the sun do I dare position them? I face northward, which in Manhattan really means due northeast, so in the morning and later in the afternoon, when the sun bounces off a seventy-five-story building a block away and directly into my apartment, I need to be sure that the light, welcome as it is, doesn’t wash them for too long and risk fading them.

Sometimes I worry that my love for bringing into my home new figures depicted on a canvas results from being here alone too much—living and working from my dining table or at a corner desk in my bedroom. Some days, if I don’t say hello to my doorman, I might have no other human interaction than my nightly acquaintance with cranky Judge Judy.

With Tim Kennedy’s newest figures, I am once again beyond their age by at least a couple of decades, and, yet, I remember living exactly as they appear to be when I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. These figures may or may not be romantically involved; they may be mere roommates to one another and not even friends. But I can tell as I am watching them awaken, get up for the day, that they feel at ease with one another, so much so that there might even be a whiff of indifference or a taking-for-granted of each other’s company. It must be warm in the kitchen: the windows in the background are open, the young man seems comfortable in bare feet, loose-fitting sweatpants and no shirt, while one of the young women is garbed in shorts, the other in cotton sleepwear. The light filtering in through the windows—those depicted and those suggested off canvas—is that of spring or summer, unfiltered and bountiful.

As I did my last two years of college life, I rented a house with friends in the student ghetto, as these figures appear to be doing, where we practiced for adult life post-graduation—learning to cook, keeping the rooms of a home orderly, divvying up domestic chores, and simply knowing how to be together in such a way that loneliness was banished but privacy respected. I don’t know how it’s possible that those years I spent in Ann Arbor are so distant and yet still so familiar. When I was there last summer for a (second) wedding of one of those very house roommates I lived with, I couldn’t identify precisely which two houses I had occupied, though I can still see in my mind the layouts, the rooms, the views afforded from my bedroom window.

Where I once bought paintings of ruinous cityscapes or took photographs of peopleless buildings, houses, and city plazas, I now almost only buy works with discernible figures, handsome and pretty ones. The many figures occupying my walls are doing something, even if it’s only posing for a classroom of art students. People now surround me in my apartment. I used to live with a partner for a dozen years, as well as subsequent people with whom I have been in love, and who have spent days and weekends here at my table, in my kitchen, asleep with me.

But I have been more alone since then, and even though none of these people on my walls will ever actually speak, I have yet to tire of any of them. They are in a silent conversation with me.  And the places and poses in which they have been positioned compel me—a porch, a kitchen, a river bank, atop a skateboard, on a mattress, standing at the Columbus Circle subway platform, kneading bread, riding a horse, pulling on socks. They are doing something, living their lives at decidedly prosaic moments, as we all do, but often wish we weren’t. Most of our time is spent performing these sundry tasks and not winning a marathon or taking bows at Carnegie Hall, typing the last word on a novel or in the midst of making love with someone we desire and who desires us. It’s those seemingly forgettable moments that may be the more profound ones.

We’ll become comfortable with one another, my three new live-in figures. It will take a few days, perhaps longer. Already, just hours after they arrived in my apartment, I am smitten with the rectangle of light that spills from the open refrigerator onto a striped rug on the wooden floor, an aqua-blue skillet dangling from a hook, the gleaming vector along the bottom of a copper pan, the candy-red of a toaster, the trunk of a tree on the street. And as with every painting I own, no museum guard, fellow visitor or gallery owner can tell me to move on, to stop staring at the work or getting too close to it. I can, and do, touch the works I own. I smell them, too. I love the smell of the paint, which retains a scent years, decades, maybe forever, after its application. Sometimes I imagine that scent to be that of the figures themselves and the brushwork the texture of their skin.

This is a painting I had seen at a show, soon after it was completed in 2008, and I have never stopped thinking about it. The artist, Tim Kennedy, generously lowered his price so that I could afford it, and he told me it made him happy to think that it would “be living” with the other painting of his I own. “Knowing that they’ll be together feels right to me,” he said. The moment I purchased it, I felt a stab of worry about having spent the money, but now that the work in its floating frame is leaning against a wall, prior to my first attempt at hanging it, I feel not a moment of regret, as I knew I would.

After all, no price can be put on companionship like this—where I will continue to find new details every time I see the work, where I can look repeatedly, with fondness, at details I know will not change, set permanently in pigment, and be with people every day who are forever young and beautiful.

Tim Kennedy’s new solo exhibition of paintings, "Paynetown," runs March 3–March 28, 2015, at First Street Gallery, 526 West 26th Street, New York City. Telephone 646-336-8053.




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