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August 15, 2006 > Artist Kenney Mencher

Artist Kenney Mencher

by Imelda Valenzuela

Sitting at his kitchen table early one Sunday morning in his typical, summertime garb --eyeglasses, shorts, t-shirt, and flip-flops-- 41-year-old Kenney Mencher, an easy-going, mild-mannered, soft-spoken Ohlone College art history professor and artist, discusses his craft. His wife of eight years, Valerie, leaves by bicycle to return a few minutes later with a bag of freshly-baked bagels the couple will bring to a neighbor's brunch get-together. Their 14-year-old, American-Eskimo mutt, Zoey, is casually off-leash, roaming freely in and out of the Palo Alto studio, and always within voice-command distance, eager to follow her longtime keepers. By all outward appearances, Mencher leads a stable, simple, quiet existence, so you'd never guess he's been the cause of such big controversy in the Northern California artistic community.

Between 2003 and 2004, Mencher's artwork was deemed too suggestive by art galleries, in San Francisco and Sacramento. "Perverted," said one gallery director. The art was promptly removed. But Mencher is unfazed by the protest. In fact, he's just about made a name for himself over the racy content of his work.

Much like Norman Rockwell, Mencher chronicles, on canvas, glimpses of modern-day American life, but with an often jolting, disconcerting edge. Unlike Rockwell, however, Mencher's work would have never appeared on the cover of a Saturday Evening Post.

Take for instance Under the Hat, which depicts a man lying on a couch, presumably amid a talk-therapy session with his red-lipsticked, blonde-haired, leggy therapist at the forefront. His hands are folded obediently across his stomach; a hat rests on his lower pelvis. Given the title of the work, viewers are left to wonder, "What is under that hat?"

Or Epiphany, an image of one man, face aghast, as another man sitting beside him on a couch leans over, ready to whisper, with a hand firmly on the sitting man's knee.

As a longtime art teacher, Mencher enjoys stoking the flame of thought in both his students and his viewers. He calls his work ambiguous and provocative. "I like it when people have to decide for themselves what they think is going on," he said. "When you get two people talking about it, they'll even argue."

Ironically, one of Mencher's favorite works isn't part of his rogue collection. It's called Radio Flyer and shows a young boy, imaginatively peering into a half-full glass of water. Behind him is an old-fashioned, red rocket in flight against a dark, star-filled sky, leaving a puffy wake of white smoke behind. "It's almost a self-portrait," said Mencher. "I was that kid, pensive, dreaming; looking into a glass of water like it was a crystal ball."

Raised primarily in Brooklyn until his parents split when he was eight, Mencher then moved around with his mother and siblings for the next six years to multiple places, including Florida and Ohio. Mencher was often teased as a child for "being a sensitive, artsy-type of kid," and also for his Brooklyn accent. So he taught himself to lose the accent in order to blend in.

As a teenager, Mencher dabbled in drugs and alcohol. A turning point came at age 22, when, yearning to be an artist but not knowing exactly how to go about it, he read the words an influential art teacher had penned into his sketchbook, "Freedom is the recognition of necessity." Mencher says, "It meant that if I wanted to make a difference in the world, I needed to look at what was really necessary to reach those goals." Making an agreement with his mother, he entered a drug rehabilitation facility to break his habit and then complete his schooling.

When he got out of the facility, he began to focus on what he really wanted in life. "I started to make this list of what I wanted to be and who I wanted to become and I started to pretend to be that guy." He ended up "pretending" his way to a Master of Art in Art History from the University of California Davis, and a Master of Fine Arts in Painting from the University of Cincinnati, and to a tenured professorship at Ohlone College, where he has been teaching for eight years.

For all his pot-stirring and button-pushing, Mencher is a prolific artist, creating up to 40 paintings a year. At any one time, he has two to three hundred painting ideas in his sketchbook. He maintains a stringent work ethic, painting 10 hours a day, 5 days a week when he is not teaching. When he doesn't paint, he gets ravenous. "I have so many paintings back-logged in my head, it's almost like an addiction. When I don't work, I get really cranky." He compared the need to paint to the longing he feels when his wife is away for an extended period. "I'm in love with what I do, so I don't want to be away from it."

NOTE: Kenney Mencher's "Apperceptions and Allegories" is currently on display until September 1 at the Elliot Fouts Gallery, 4749 J Street, Sacramento, CA (916) 736-1429. His work can also be viewed through October 15 at the Triton Museum of Art, 1505 Warburton Ave., Santa Clara, CA. Or visit www.kenney-mencher.com.

 
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