An Interview with Garry Neill Kennedy

Photo: Scott Massey, 2016

At 81 years of age, Garry Neill Kennedy remains one of this country’s most influential visual artists, educators and proponents of the arts.

Kennedy first studied at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto in 1960. He later attended the University at Buffalo on a football scholarship, where he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1963. He earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from Ohio University in 1965.

As the first president of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) in Halifax (1967–90), he was pivotal in transforming what had been a small, conservative art school into an internationally recognized institute for the visual arts. Kennedy also taught at NSCAD for over 40 years, while maintaining an art practice rooted in criticism of the art world and bureaucracies, skepticism of authority, and a shrewd sense of humour. In addition, Kennedy was a visiting professor at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in the 1970s, and at the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts in Paris in 1995. 

Kennedy has had a number of solo exhibitions around the world, including a 2001 retrospective at the National Gallery of Canada. His work can be found in numerous private and public collections including the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. His work can currently be seen as part of the Vancouver Art Gallery’s first Triennial exhibition, featuring 40 artists, Vancouver Special: Ambivalent Pleasures on view until April 17, 2017. 

Kennedy was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 2003 and received a Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts in 2004.


NGC Magazine: The Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) exhibition, Vancouver Special: Ambivalent Pleasures is being described by VAG as “a series of overlapping conversations.” Tell us about the work you have in this show, and what you feel you bring to the “conversation.”

Garry Neill Kennedy: I’m showing a bunch of heads called Finchwell Revisited (Finchwell, Finchwell, Finchwell, Finchwell and Osborn), a work that I did 34 years ago. There were eight stencils of office bosses and workers that I took from cartoons from the 1950s that a fellow had given me years ago, when I was at NSCAD. The stencils are about 36” square and are stencilled in black on a bright yellow wall, and they show bosses shouting at workers. It’s about workplace politics. I’ve done a number of works related to this subject. It’s a dark subject about the power of bosses over workers.

Garry Neill Kennedy, Finchwell Revisited (Finchwell, Finchwell, Finchwell, Finchwell and Osborn) [detail], 1983/2016, installation view, Vancouver Special: Ambivalent Pleasures, Vancouver Art Gallery, December 3, 2016–April 17, 2017. Photo: Maegan Hill-Carroll, Vancouver Art Gallery

NGCM: What do you like about being included in an exhibition such as this?

GNK: Well, there are old timers in the show, like me and Glenn Lewis, and there are younger artists, and it’s nice to be in a show with these emerging artists. The works play off each other very well. It’s a very cohesive show in how it comes together.

NGCM: You are well-known for your gimlet eye when looking at social issues, how bureaucracies function, and even the art world. Is this still important to you?

GNK: Yes, it is still important to me. I did another piece, Ya ummi, ya ummi, which was the cry of Canadian boy soldier Omar Khadr when he was being interrogated by CSIS agents in Guantanamo Bay prison, after he’d spent a year in U.S. Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. In English, these Arabic words mean “O Mother, O Mother.” This piece is about the power of the interrogators over Omar Khadr. I met Omar in a restaurant in Vancouver, where he gave me full permission to do this work.

NGCM: You have said you don’t like labels such as “conceptual” or “contemporary” for your art. What do you call your work?

GNK: I guess it’s conceptual, but I’ve been trying to figure that out. Back in my NSCAD days, all we did was work of this nature — post-Duchampian work. It’s either conceptual or it’s post-conceptual, but I think it’s conceptual. I’ll live with that label, but I don’t have to like it.

Garry Neill Kennedy, Finchwell Revisited (Finchwell, Finchwell, Finchwell, Finchwell and Osborn) [detail], 1983/2016, installation view, Vancouver Special: Ambivalent Pleasures, Vancouver Art Gallery, December 3, 2016–April 17, 2017. Photo: Maegan Hill-Carroll, Vancouver Art Gallery

NGCM: When you were president of NSCAD, you basically took what had been a small, unknown college and turned it into a creative hotbed with an international reputation. What opportunity did you recognize?

GNK: I was teaching up in Wisconsin at the time, and I said, “Well, why not?” There were so many people they had interviewed for the position who thought it wasn’t a very good school. I thought it was the chance of a lifetime, and I took it and made it into this great place. No one in Canada or the U.S. was dealing with contemporary art. The artists were, but not the educational institutions. It wasn’t part of their curricula. There was dance and performance and video, but none of these contemporary subjects were being offered in the art colleges.

NGCM: What do you feel was your greatest accomplishment at NSCAD?

GNK: Bringing these disciplines into the NSCAD program — into the system — and teaching them. And bringing in the artists who worked in these disciplines.

Garry Neill Kennedy, Quid Pro Quo, 2015. Photo credit: Scott Massey

NGCM: What did that transformation of NSCAD do for art and artists in Atlantic Canada?

GNK: Not only Atlantic Canada, but throughout the United States and in Europe, NSCAD became famous for bringing these ideas and concepts into the curriculum. It boosted the whole university and art-college structure. Then our graduates went out into the world and taught these ideas. It transformed the Canadian art scene and the international art scene.

NGCM: An American History Painting (The Complete List of Pittsburgh Paints Historic Colour Series) from 1996 is one of your well-known works in the National Gallery of Canada collection. Can you explain the motive or the message behind that piece?

GNK: It’s an obelisk, and it lists all of these colours one on top of the other. I looked at the names of these colours and I stacked them — 56 of them — starting with the bottom one, which is Smokey Mountain Blue and quite long, then the top one which is Gunstock and quite short. If you stack one on top of the other, you get this gradual pyramid. It looks like the Washington Monument. It’s amazing. The military is endemic in this work: Soldier Green; Bunker Hill; Texas Star; Kitty Hawk; Fort Leavenworth. These words are interspersed on this mountain of colours and painted on the wall as you see it at the National Gallery — 31 feet high. I was trying to say that the U.S.A. is a country of guns and money.

NGCM: Another of your works in the national collection is Figure Paintings (1984). What inspired that work, and what is it about?

GNK: It was about the colour of the NATO ships that came into Halifax Harbour. My father was a shipbuilder, and I worked as a shipbuilder in the summers, so it brought a lot of things together. The key to the project was the colours of navy ships. I was reminded of the colours of the fleets: the Americans had a dark grey, the Mexican fleet had a lighter shade of grey, and the Canadians had a nice turquoise. So I compared the colours of the fleets.

NGCM: What advice do you have for art students and emerging artists?

GNK: Art students today should spend more time looking at the work of conceptual artists. Study artists such as Michael Snow and photographer Jeff Wall. I show my students works by these artists, and we discuss what they are doing. As for emerging artists: don’t get too hung up on sales. 

Garry Neill Kennedy's work is part of Vancouver Special: Ambivalent Pleasures on view until April 17, 2017. Visitors to the NGC can currently see An American History Painting (The Complete List of Pittsburgh Paints Historic Colour Series) in Contemporary Gallery B101. In May 2017, Figure Paintings will be presented in the NGC's newly reconfigured Upper and Lower Contemporary Galleries.

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