Oh, the Humanity!

Artist Keegan Wenkman wants to rid the world of hatred, one oversized head at a time

If Keegan Wenkman were his own painted allegory, he might go something like this: A boy, 22, is crouched outside of his apartment wearing nearly invisible glasses that give him the ability to stare through the brick turrets of the Gothic mansion across the street. Cigarette smoke surrounds his thin face, and he has little tufts of wild hair that act as tiny antennas, picking up on the loneliness around him. His cable-knit sweater has a four-inch gash at the right elbow, and a black, kid-sized superhero cape is tied loosely around his neck. He's more than outgrown the cape, which now looks like a baby bib turned backwards. It makes obvious outward flaws, like a torn sweater, seem even more human by comparison.

At first glance, you'd never know Wenkman wears an imaginary cape, the same one he dreamed he wore when he was a five-year-old scaling the almond trees in his native Fresno, California. But this might be how Wenkman would want others to see him, the same way he sees people in the park or outside of bridal shops, and later renders them as moody snapshots with their own implied narrative. He's been painting for only four years, but already he has a knack for evoking something larger about the human condition without simply reducing it to an ironic or banal parody of itself. This is evident in his current exhibit at Image Dump Exhibitions in northeast Minneapolis, which runs through April 16.

Left: Looking for happy: Keegan Wenkman grins and bears the weight of the world. Right: All your friends you figured out by Keegan Wenkman.
Daniel Corrigan
Left: Looking for happy: Keegan Wenkman grins and bears the weight of the world. Right: All your friends you figured out by Keegan Wenkman.

Inside Wenkman's downtown Minneapolis apartment, his cramped living room/bedroom/studio is overflowing with books: art books, a dog-eared copy of a McSweeney's anthology, even a few volumes from the For Dummies line. His futon couch/bed has at least three separate waist-high piles of clothes on it. Soul Coughing plays on the stereo and a radiator clanks as if a pissed-off ghost is pleading to escape from inside. The ashtray in the center of a cluttered coffee table is surprisingly clean; you'd never guess by looking around the tumbledown space that this guy is careful with his ashes. And you certainly wouldn't guess from all of his self-reflective Hallmark musings that he sometimes cusses up a storm. But it's that kind of multi-dimensionality that Wenkman wants viewers to see in a single painting.

Often Wenkman's paintings feature childlike characters with heads as big as moons and legs the size of pencils. The eyes of the subjects are enlarged and exaggerated, while their noses and mouths look like they've been distorted by a funhouse mirror and reduced to little flesh spots. Sometimes the wide-eyed characters are holding objects, like a bluebird and a knife, as in Untitled. In The Imperialist, the subject has a miniature pink pig crawling up his back like a spider.

"They all have a duality," Wenkman says. "They could go either way from that moment, and I kind of like that. It's like a Jeopardy question where the answer is: Why are they doing this? What makes them tick?"

In his painting Bumps, Buckets, and Broken Knuckles, a girl in a sleeveless red dress has arms that look like pieces of gum being pulled into rubbery threads by the weight of her enormous hands, which are armed with brass knuckles. The background, painted in thick, square brush strokes, is filled in with Expressionistic hues of bright turquoise and muted copper. The girl is a friend who was visiting Wenkman's downtown apartment and donned the knuckles as a protective measure before she left. Wenkman couldn't believe it. He says he painted the moment to expose the chasm between his perception of reality and her false sense of security.

While Wenkman is generally soft-spoken, he gets agitated about certain things, such as an enormous neon installation that taunted him from the window of an art gallery. "Did you see that horse cock on LaSalle?" he asks. "There was a giant horse in the window of Soo Vac, and then I saw this orange thing between its legs. Where is the humanity in that? What are we trying to say, that we equate ourselves with a horse's cock?"

Wenkman is a self-taught painter, though he's attending school for web design. By modern-art definitions, he's an "outsider" artist. This characterization is okay by Wenkman, who idolizes Norwegian kitsch artist Odd Nerdrum. In some of Wenkman's first paintings the influence is immediately obvious: Nerdrum often paints swaddled babies, and one of Wenkman's earlier works features a very similar-looking swaddled baby. "Babies are the only new thing that don't come from a factory," Wenkman says with a professorial air.

Wenkman considers himself an outsider in other ways. He's an intense observer, which can be seen in his comic-book-like ink illustrations, which are often the skeletons for his brightly colored paintings. Scrawled across the tops of the drawings in black cursive lettering with elongated curlicue tails are phrases like, "Getting the words right might solve the problem." In that picture, a mother with worried eyes holds a little boy who seems to already know her secrets. "I didn't realize until I saw all of the drawings together that they were all kind of an homage to Mom," Wenkman says. "They're about the humanity between us, and about what I learned from her."

When Wenkman was 12, his parents went through a rough time. He moved out of their house to live with his 22-year-old sister, who had just returned from following the Smashing Pumpkins around the country. It was the same year Wenkman saw a copy of the Onion that featured his then-18-year-old brother as the "Drunk of the Week."

"I learned a lot that year," he says with a laugh. "Twelve-year-olds don't usually get so accustomed to eating noodles with cold spaghetti sauce every night and actually have a good time doing it."

He moved back home after his parents reconciled a few years later, and he began to see his mother through a new lens. She was a nurse and would always come home with a story to tell, if anyone was willing to listen. "My mom was so lonely for a long time," he says. "She didn't have many friends to turn to. Most of her friends were lying in hospital beds. That really rubbed off on me. She was so selfless."

Which also might explain why Wenkman is so hyperaware of loneliness, in himself and his subjects. "I think loneliness is a byproduct of being an observer just as much as happiness is," he says. "But I guess no one wants to be an observer all the time. Sometimes you want to be on the other side of things, being the one observed and having someone giving that same amount of empathy." He pauses. "Yeah, I guess it is lonely."

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