Delicately wrapped in emotion, artist and award–winning director, Ken Cunningham plants a seed of ingenuity that unfurls like a slow bloom in our thoughts. The evocation of grace ignites and welcomes you to the “edge between the seen and the felt”. It’s there that we discover the pensive narratives he manifests. Deep into the oil layers, through the peaks and valleys of such intentional brushwork, he is a storyteller… and so we listen to the beat of his creative mind and follow where his imagination takes us.
Soulful renderings and poetic sensibilities emerge and we journey deeper into the beautifully hazy vison to experience his many echoing interpretations. Rich in symbolism, and laced with subtle ambiguity, let the autumnal tones and discerning emotion cover you like a blanket of inspiration.
We had the pleasure of speaking with Ken Cunningham to learn more about his work, his series of paintings at Abend Gallery, keen visual expression, and so much more. We hope you enjoy…
I have been drawing more and more on my past experiences as a dance artist. How it felt to experience your body in space and express things to an audience with it.
Exclusive Interview with Ken Cunningham
Ken, thank you for taking time to speak with us, we’re grateful for the opportunity to learn more and share your work with others. Sometimes, before we move ahead, we must look back at where we started – to help sculpt the realization of our growth. Travel back in time and take us through some of your earliest experiences with art and what this journey has solidified for you today? What has nurtured your creativity and artistic expression the most?
Like a lot of artists, I’ve made images for as long as I can remember. It started off centred around things I loved as a child like comics, science fiction movies, etc. It then matured in my teens as I discovered painters like Andrew Wyeth. In my mid-teens I discovered dance and that dictated the trajectory of my life for the next decades and a half. I studied, then became a professional dance artist, a career I maintained till my early 30’s, at which point I studied animation and shifted to a career in that.
I moved through various roles, cleanup artist, animator, designer, storyboard artist etc., eventually arriving at directing. Due to the commercial nature of my work, I started to strongly feel the need to engage in art work that was more personal, which led me to studying and painting mentorships, and put me on the path to where I currently am.
Your work is a marriage of figurative and portrait paintings that let us escape into the narrative. Like pages from a book, the muted tones of burnt sienna and ashy paynes grey embrace the symbolism and allegory as partners. What draws you to this composition and type of painterly storytelling?
More than anything, it’s about hitting the emotional notes I want to hit. I’m trying to express something that I feel in my body through the figures in my work and techniques and colour palette I use.
The muted tones I use have a resonance for me that elicits the feeling I’m going for.
Through paradox and complexity, there’s fragility and intensity to each silhouette and emotion seemingly bleeds from their expression and body language. Your series of paintings at Abend Gallery delves into ideations of Eve and you stated: “…reframing the symbolic nature of the apple as it relates to women. I like to imagine these women taking back the apple for themselves, cleaving it away from its biblical connotations.”
It’s clear you inject a human experience, why has this served as your muse? Who are your subjects and will you share more on how you’re exploring form, its energy and the space around it?
I have been drawing more and more on my past experiences as a dance artist. How it felt to experience your body in space and express things to an audience with it. The women in my images are women who have a similar understanding, with whom I work to arrive at the final image I am trying to create. Some are dancers, some are not. But all of them have a strong awareness of their bodies and how to inhabit them expressively. More and more, the reference creation process for my work is almost becoming a choreographic process that I document with photographs or video, which I then work from to create the finished images.
More broadly, beyond the narrative aspect of my work, I’m interested in exploring the experience of the body in space and the energy underlying the interaction between our body and the space around it. That sense of a broader world beyond the seen, that you can sense the edges of when in the right place of openness.
Using a buildup of loose strokes, I search for an emerging quality to my figures as a way of finding the edge between them and the space around them, depicting as much as I can, where those two things merge together. It’s the project of seeking an interaction beyond the seen, attempting to form meaning out of those experiences, and reflect that experience in the figures within my work.
What do you feel is the most integral part of your work in terms of visual expression, style, and narrative?
The parts I leave open and unresolved. The places that fall into texture. Those areas where the body blurs into space and becomes a part of it.
Do you find your work is more technically driven or emotionally engaged – or a combination?
I would like to say more emotionally engaged but technique is always a thing that’s present. I hope that someday it is something I move beyond, but for now I still need to think about what is technically going on, so that I can then push past it to the emotionally engaged part.
To date, which painting has challenged you the most and what steps did you take to sort through it?
I think it would be “For This From That Will Be Filled”. This painting was an inflection point for me where everything I had been learning up to that point was struggling to come together. It felt like the voice I had been groping towards started emerging through that painting.
In terms of the steps to sort through it, really what it came down to was time. With that piece I gave myself the permission to just work at it regardless of how long it took. Each time I started to think, I should stop here, I would push it a little further. That process took me to a richer finished piece than I had achieved before.
It’s a matter of prioritizing what’s important to you and giving your time to that, which basically comes down to letting go of things that aren’t important.
Similarly, of your body of work, which painting do you feel mirrors you most closely? And please tell us why.
Ironically, “A Mirror to Presence”, because with that piece, I feel like I finally crossed the threshold into what my work can be.
How do you maintain work and life, family, priorities, and other endeavors? What balances are you constantly weighing?
I have a full time job working as a director in the animation industry, directing projects for Lego, Marvel Studios, and Lucas Films, among others. I’m also a father, so there is limited time for me to paint. It’s a matter of prioritizing what’s important to you and giving your time to that, which basically comes down to letting go of things that aren’t important.
My work, over the last few years, has been a process of both building and stripping away. The building part has been technical while also trying to drill down into something with deeper meaning for me.
What is the best advice you’ve been given in regards to being an artist, practices, maintaining a career as one, and what would you like to share with anyone reading this right now?
One of my main mentor’s, Brad Kunkle, made some suggestions on the group of paintings I did for the Abend Gallery show. After thinking about it, I chose to not add one of the elements he was suggesting because it went against my intuition of where I wanted the symbolism of the pieces to land. When I showed him the finished pieces, I felt bad and apologised for not following the advice but explained why.
Who am I to ignore the advice of Brad Kunkle, after all! He laughed, and then told me a story of a similar moment in his career when another renowned painter suggested he drop the gold leaf he was starting to use. He struggled with it then decided to ignore the advice. It ended up being a moment that confirmed his vision. He said he saw that happening with me, which was this beautiful moment of permission to dig deeper into my own impulses.
You mention in your bio that you create work that is transformational and personal. Indeed, you have a beautifully cohesive body of work… how have these imaginative faculties changed and evolved over time?
My work, over the last few years, has been a process of both building and stripping away. The building part has been technical while also trying to drill down into something with deeper meaning for me. The stripping away has been a process of trying to strip away elements that feel superfluous and less truthful.
Being able to connect your vision with others must give you a sense of achievement and deeper meaning. Sharing your artistic voice is such a reflective gift. How does it make you feel knowing others are inspired by what you create?
Given the chaos and strife that seems currently prevalent, it’s reassuring that there are other people that share my world view and humbling to know that they take some pleasure from the images I create.
Describe a place (your favorite place) that has become inspirational to the creation of your artwork – one that pants seeds in your imagination.
Home because that is where my wife and daughter are and because they continue to make me a better human than I would otherwise be.
What’s your favorite thing to do outside of the art studio?
Spending time with my wife and daughter, reading and meditation.
Will you tell us about your plans for the rest of 2023 and what you hope to accomplish… what do you see on the horizon? What are you daydreaming about that you hope comes to fruition? And what can we expect to see from you in the coming months?
I want to move into more multi-figure compositions and bring in more objects for these figures to interact with. Basically, continue to add more complexity to my work. I’ll be participating in a couple of group shows with Abend through to the end of the year.
Hope to continue to get my work in front of as many people as possible. Art is a discussion and for that it needs an audience.
Ken Cunningham Artist Statement //
With my work, I’m interested in exploring the experience of the body in space. The sense that there is an energy underlying the interaction between your body and the space around it. That there is something beyond the seen. It’s the project of attempting to form meaning out of those experiences and reflecting that experience in the figures within my work.
My process is informed by this. I try to find a place of balance between the representational and the abstract by working with a certain amount of randomness in the mark making. I’m trying to find that edge between the seen and the felt. By introducing elements of abstraction, I cultivate marks I find engaging, which then guide me to more intriguing places than I would otherwise find using straight depiction. I like the tension between what the medium is showing me and the more realistic depiction of the image. It introduces an element of openness and ambiguity that I find very compelling when combined with more classically beautiful subjects.