Because infants perceive only movement and contrast, adults open their eyes wide, arch their brows, and raise the pitch of their voice in an attempt to bond. This is how we learn that we are not alone in the world - a revelation that must seat itself profoundly in that part of the brain that records emotions. Is it any wonder, when our very first existential crisis is met with a toothy smile, big eyes and singing happy talk, that as adults we thrust Mickey and Minnie on our children for comfort, or find ourselves seeking solace in pop stars with cartoon smiles?
The traveller notices it first - the billboards, the magazine covers, the TV screens featuring unfamiliar yet attractive, wide-eyed, smiling characters with indecipherable foreign texts. You think, "Why are all these people smiling at me, and what are they trying to say?" It seems like the world has begun to feel like a giant crib, with dozens of strange relatives looking in and talking baby talk. Westerners travelling from the old West Berlin to the communist East Berlin used to experience another kind of shock. It was a shock of withdrawal - the total and complete cessation of visual happy talk - no billboards, no backlit signs, no glamour magazines at the newsstand. It was like the aural equivalent of turning the television and the radio off.
Clearly, being accustomed to its sensuous embrace, we become confused when commercial publicity is absent. The promise of contemporary urban life is the satiation of desire, where you can get anything you want, where no anxiety need go unaddressed, where no impulse lacks an expression. The world of commercial imagery that surrounds us is a fantasy of glamour and affection, providing meaning and security in a community of economic values. Publicity and advertising assure us that even if we can't afford it, even if we aren't good enough or glamorous enough, comfort exists.
Dan Kennedy's paintings in the exhibition "Shack of Deals" have all been created since 1999 and comprise aspects of two bodies of work. The painting Trick #6 comes from a series of work of the same name and takes as its compositional format the conventional advertising poster or signboard, where texts at the bottom and the top frame a central illustration. Kennedy makes reference to these recognizable formats in his Trick series paintings, seeking to create a layered, visual representation of the voice of the huckster, combining the illusions of the sales pitch, with the pictorial illusions of age in the apparently yellowing varnish and fading enamels. Illusionism, the artist seems to be saying, is the property of both the artist and the huckster.
A separate body of work is illustrated by the title piece of the exhibition Shack of Deals, in which the conventional graphic format of the posters is replaced by dense layers of images and text that seem to float in weightless spaces. These painted collages conjure a world filled with cartoon characters, comic pastorals and fragments of words in commercial typefaces. No text is complete. No phrase resolves into a statement. Instead, the words begin to resemble the aural detritus of a garbled salesman's shill. All that remain are the superlatives and the false imperatives.
These are airless paintings, whose cartoon figures are incomplete, fragmented, inverted, colliding and jostling in a soupy, viscous space. Pastel bubbles appear to leak and hiss from the recesses and cavities of this claustrophobic world. Pictorial spaces shift, from illusionistic depths, to flat dripping areas of colour. Moments of innocent charm - popular cartoon characters for example - seem overwhelmed and oppressed by the crowded space in which they seem doomed to exist, like some Disney version of Dante's Inferno.
Looking up from our cribs at our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers and extended family can be a both a comforting and terrifying experience. As hard as they try, not all of those high voices and exaggerated smiles manage to bridge the gulf between knowledge and innocence. Aged faces scare babies, and why not? They provide a little bit too much information about things to come.
It is hard not to feel that Kennedy's vision is not dissimilar to the infant's view from the crib. Cartoons of wide-eyed innocence exist side by side with caricatures of the wizened and sinister. These images mirror the same emotional mixture of comfort and threat, and beg the question: is this an isolated world view, or is this vision an insight into a larger social pathology?
Much current speculation on the effects of globalization and the penetration of corporate cultural values suggest that social infantilization is the inevitable and even desired outcome. Benjamin R. Barber has described contemporary marketing's targeting of children as ideal consumers:
The result is a new consumer who is neither a kid nor an adult, but a "kidult" with grown-up buying power and childish, uniform tastes that can be catered to by fast food, athletic shoes, T-shirts, cola drinks, Gap-style coed clothes based loosely on sports apparel, and - the merchandising and branding engine behind it all - the global pop culture of homogenized MTV music and Hollywood's cartoonish blockbuster films and videos.(1)
The defining aspect of multinational global consumerism at the turn of the millennium is the pursuit of economic self interest and personal self gratification, to the detriment of all other values. We are encouraged and enabled to pursue our most immature desires, to demand from the world endless comfort and gratification, to consume out of our most irrational fears and to forego the basic responsibilities of citizenship.
Dan Kennedy's work is not the product of an isolated individual, but rather that of an observer of contemporary life. He uses the tools of pop culture familiarity and character recognition to connect with viewers and bring people into his work. At the same time, we may be troubled and discomfited by his ambiguous, mysterious and toxic spaces, by the shrill bleating of his advertising graphics and by the ominous signs of aging and mortality that he builds into these paintings. These works mirror what growing numbers of people feel - the simultaneous experience of desire and disgust, of charm and alienation, of satiation and of emptiness, in the new global market place - in this great shack of deals.
1. Benjamin R. Barber, "The Global Infantilization: How We Became Kidults without Noting the Loss of Freedom In Society," Tagespiegel Online, Tagespiegel Online Dienste Verlag: 2001, <http://www2.tagespiegel.de/archiv/2001/09/08/ak-so-am-558006.html>.