Reclaimed and reimagined: Kenny Jensen’s Intimate Immensities

The solo show at [email protected] is part swamp séance and part family lore.

Kenny Jensen: Intimate Immensities
Runs through Feb. 7 at The [email protected]
Closing reception on Sat., Feb. 7, 6-9 p.m.;
gallery talk at 7:30 p.m.

The whole time Kenny Jensen was growing up, his grandfather was building a dream. In a barn adjacent to his grandparents’ hand-built cabin in the swamp near Gulf Hammock, about 40 miles southwest of Gainesville, Jensen watched a 53-foot-long, three-level pleasure boat made of 50 tons of cast concrete take shape around a skeletal metal frame. Its extravagant features included space onboard for a smaller boat, a darkroom for Jensen’s grandmother (an avid amateur photographer), and an ill-advised underwater window.

No one knew exactly why his grandfather was building the boat, Jensen says, but the project began after Jensen’s great-uncle died and lasted 18 years. The colossal Fern A, which would float and eventually decompose on the Waccasassa River, became a late-in-life obsession for the former commercial fisherman and electrical engineer.
Years later, while Jensen was finding his way as a graphic designer, painter and cultural producer, he recalled the spirit of invention that infused his grandparents’ rural retirement. Leaving St. Petersburg for San Diego in 2006, after helping to organize a dozen contemporary art exhibitions at the Pier and the Morean Arts Center under the banner “Project Creo,” he returned to the cabin in Gulf Hammock and collected odds and ends, including a dilapidated piece of cloth that once functioned as a canopy on the boat.

In California, Jensen transformed the cloth into a drawing by flipping it over and tracing its intricate network of sunbaked creases with a red pen. After a series of long meditations on San Diego beaches, he began to imagine merging his art and life in such works.

A turning point came after Jensen moved back to St. Pete in 2008, married his wife, Maggie, and began decorating their bungalow with artifacts and clusters of found objects — hunks of driftwood, pint-sized tangles of electrical wiring — salvaged from the cabin and surrounding swamp. Maggie asked a simple question.

“This is your art. Why don’t you show this?” Jensen recalls.

This week, a short-run exhibition at the [email protected] showcases what happened when he decided to do just that. More than 100 pieces — ranging from minimally manipulated found objects recovered from his family’s property to photographs, drawings and carefully crafted sculptures — spill out into an archival love letter to the Gulf Hammock family home, which Jensen calls the “Floating Woods.”

The works display an engrossing range of approaches to making. Many are variations on a cabinet of curiosities, or a quirky collection of things arranged by theme or likeness, from dried swamp weeds to fragments of animal skull. Jensen weaves these elements together with more intentional artworks: cinematic color photographs shot in the swamp with friends, with Jensen acting as director, and altered maps, family photos and found images. On Saturday, Jensen gives a public talk at the [email protected], where he also works as gallery curator and studio manager.

“I saw that the ideas I was most interested in communicating were best expressed through the play, through the collecting, the arranging. I’m a composer more than I am a painter,” Jensen says.

When I turned up at his Crescent Lake home for a visit before the exhibition, I worried that Jensen’s collecting impulse might require a serious edit. Stacks of framed curiosities, drawings and photographs — all tenderly encased by hand with salvaged wood from, among other places, a friend’s termite-eaten garage in Seminole Heights — took over his indoor studio, a converted bedroom. A cat nested on a shelf amid half a dozen slender stumps of wood, now arranged on a white pedestal at the [email protected], incised with graphic designs of curling insect-track patterns. Twisting chunks of driftwood and mangrove roots had colonized the garage.

But the exhibition, though dense, has unfolded beautifully onto newly built walls in the gallery. Many artists who work in such archival modes do so to probe a historical or scientific narrative. Jensen's task is more like conjuring: his exhibition is part swamp séance and part family lore.

Not all junk left to rot in your grandpa’s barn is created equal. Jensen picks the stuff he can coax something special out of: a yellowed scrap of paper revived with a delicate colored pencil drawing; a DIY electrical circuit board repurposed into a kind of abstract geometric collage; or a decomposing stack of magazines, gorgeous with flaky crustiness, just mounted to a wall.

The drawing on cloth from his grandfather’s boat hangs at the front of the show. The back of the gallery is devoted to a small exhibition-within-the-exhibition of his grandfather’s designs and his grandmother’s photographs.

When Jensen’s grandparents returned to St. Petersburg a few years ago for health reasons, he acquired the deed to the Gulf Hammock property, where he and his wife escape on weekends. Now Jensen plans to develop the site into an artists’ residency program, a resource sorely lacking in West Central Florida. The work in Intimate Immensities offers a preview of the sensibility he hopes to share with other artists.

“This is what I see when I’m in creation and nature,” Jensen says. “I’m synthesizing my experience in the swamp and in the world with the gallery.” 

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